Thais in 'forgotten south' want peace talks to continue

BANGKOK - A Muslim religious teacher was killed on Sunday and his son seriously injured in a gun attack outside a school in Thailand's Narathiwat province.

The murder was the latest in a series of what appears to be tit-for-tat attacks against Buddhists and Muslims in the country's restive southern border provinces.

Meanwhile, the peace talks between the Thai state and southern Thailand separatists have been stalled since June last year. The caretaker Thai government, facing judicial challenges and prolonged paralysis from incomplete elections, neither has the will nor capacity to negotiate with militants waging an armed insurgency for an independent state.

It would be easy to declare the talks dead, but the picture is more complex. The Malaysia-brokered peace process may have started off on a flawed note in February last year and stumbled along until it halted abruptly, but the current breather could put it in good stead for the future.

The talks' Malaysian facilitator, Mr Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, perhaps its biggest cheerleader, declared the situation as merely an "impasse" last Friday.

Given that the talks will ultimately determine the fate of the region, should only militants have seats at the negotiating table? If no, how should other parties be brought on board?

With the political crisis in Bangkok, Mr Zamzamin, speaking on the sidelines of a forum in Pattani province, said: "At least we have time now to look into this."

Unlike most talks, which are kept under wraps for years before some tentative agreement is reached, the deal between the Thai state and separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional was signed under intense publicity.

Details of each round of dialogue were leaked to media, sparking intense discussion as well as criticism from mainstream Thai media averse to the idea of ceding ground to groups they regarded as terrorists.

Any hiccups were "immediately interpreted as failure", said Mr Zamzamin.

Beyond that, there was the nagging issue of how to best represent the interests of the Malay Muslims in southern Thailand.

The area in question covers the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and a part of Songkhla, and used to be part of the Patani sultanate until annexed by then Siam more than a century ago.

Throughout the years, the mainly Malay Muslim locals have remained culturally and linguistically separate from mainstream Thailand.

The current separatist movement flared up about a decade ago, with militants launching bomb and gun attacks against the tens of thousands of soldiers and other security officers, as well as teachers, stationed in the south.

About 6,000 people have died in the conflict.

Mr Wae-Isma-Ael Naesae, the director of a Pattani-based civil society group called People's College, told The Straits Times: "People do want the peace talks. They want them to continue. But they also want the Thai government to be sincere."

This means rolling back on the emergency laws and reducing the heavy troop presence there to reduce the chances of abuse of authority, he said.

More importantly, the talks have opened up public discussion on the political future of these southern provinces, something that was previously more difficult to do under the region's emergency laws.

When the dust is settled in Bangkok, peace talks in some form or other will have to go on, said Universiti Sains Malaysia lecturer Kamarulzaman Askandar.

The alternative would be too bleak to consider: a spiral of unending violence in what is currently Thailand's forgotten corner.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.