Thailand's military government has launched a high-profile effort to pacify the Buddhist nation's three restive Muslim-majority provinces through what it calls "peaceful dialogue." The junta, which seized power in a coup against the country's last elected government in 2014, has set up a Peace Dialogue Panel with several prominent army generals on it, including junta leader and Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha
, the prime minister. The panel's aim, the generals say, is to try and bring southern insurgents to the negotiating table to "de-escalate the situation." Since 2004 groups of Muslim separatists in the three southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia have been waging a bloody insurgency against rule from Bangkok. Over the past 15 years, thousands of people, including hundreds of security personnel, have died in roadside bombings and guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks by members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional
(National Revolutionary Front), or BRN, and other Islamist militant groups. Estimates of the casualty toll in the troubled region remain contested. Senior Thai officials say some 5,000 people have been killed, but the actual death toll could be considerably higher. Thailand's junta says it is ready to engage in talks with separatists unconditionally. "We don't have any preconditions [ahead of talks]," Gen. Udomchai Thamasarorat, the head of the Peace Dialogue Panel, told foreign journalists at a press event in Bangkok on Jan. 11. "We don't impose, we don't force. But we should seek to resolve these issues urgently." A former head of the Royal Thai Army's 4th Army in Pattani province in southern Thailand, Gen. Udomchai, 65, said armed groups would not be expected to renounce violence before they agreed to engage in back-channel talks with Thai officials. "We want to hear directly from them. If they want to remain anonymous, we are fine with that," he said. "We want to talk to each and every separatist group because they may have different views and agendas. We will talk to all groups — whether they agree or disagree [with us], whether they use violence or don't use violence." The Thai army has repeatedly been criticized over its handling of the Islamic insurgency in the south. Local units' tactics and policies, observers have said, could well have worsened the situation by fueling Muslims' anger at Buddhist rule. Lives at stake
The generals on the Peace Dialogue Panel appeared to tacitly acknowledge that the army might have to soften its stance.
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"We have sensitized the heads of local units to the importance of dialogue," said Maj. Gen. Krengkri Srirak, commander of the 4th Army's Support Command. "State officials must make sure that they don't violate human rights and human dignity." Gen. Udomchai concurred. "Our task is to transform the conflict. It's important to build confidence in a peace process. If they [insurgents and separatists] are ready, they should come and talk to us. But time is of the essence because lives are at stake." The generals also stressed, however, that the three Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat would not be allowed to secede and must remain part of Thailand. "We have reached out to Malaysia [to help] resolve the conflict," Gen. Udomchai said. "But in the end it has to be an internal dialogue because it is an internal issue." In the three southernmost provinces, local Muslims
speak a Malay dialect and have far more in common culturally with Malaysian Muslims than Thai Buddhists. The area once belonged to the sultanate of Pattani, which paid tribute to Siamese kings, before Bangkok set out in the early 20th century to assimilate locals culturally. In the 1930s Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, an army general who sought to replicate Italian-style fascist rule in Thailand, stepped up Thaification efforts among various ethnic groups around Thailand, including the southernmost region which had been annexed by the Kingdom of Siam. Many local Muslims have been chafing at rule from Bangkok ever since. Simmering discontent has led to a succession of separatist movements. Over the past decade and a half, Islamist militants have routinely targeted Buddhist civilians, especially civil servants and teachers, in an effort to try and drive non-Muslims away from the three restive provinces. Muslims seen as accommodating towards Thai Buddhists have also been targeted by home-grown Islamists with extremist views. Just as the Royal Thai Army was launching its peace initiative, on Jan. 10 suspected insurgents on motorbikes shot dead four Muslim security guards at a primary school in Pattani where they had been guarding students. A day earlier, a 12-year-old girl was injured when a bomb exploded near another school in the same district. That same day a teacher in adjacent Songkhla province was shot dead by suspected insurgents. His truck was then rigged with a bomb that injured six police officers. "It's almost as if they [Muslim separatists] want to send a message that they don't want to have anything to do with the government's latest peace initiative," a Bangkok-based United Nations official who is familiar with the situation and requested anonymity told ucanews.com. "They might assume that [violent] actions speak louder than words when they want to make their point." In early January, Abdul Karim Khalib, a spokesman for the BRN, released a video calling on Muslims to continue resisting Thai rule. "Dear people of Malay Patani, if we are still strong, it is not wrong for us to continue until we win. If the peace effort by Siam is true, we can make peace," Khalib said, referring to Thailand by its old name. "But if the peace effort is only to trick us, then we will fight." He added: "BRN will fight with all our might. Do not be Siam's tool, do not support Siam. Inshallah, we will win! Keep fighting! Independence!"