The leader of PULO, a longtime rebel group in Thailand’s Deep South, has asked to join peace talks already under way between the government and the region’s largest militant outfit, he told BenarNews this week.
Meanwhile, the Barisan Revolusion Nasional (BRN), which opened direct talks with the government in 2020, has indicated it is open to having others join in, a stance welcomed by a conflict resolution expert.
Kasturi Mahkota told BenarNews on Monday that his group “may join the peace talk with the Thai government.
“I contacted a government negotiator via an online channel on Monday. We may meet in the next peace talks soon,” the PULO leader said, without elaborating.
PULO claimed responsibility for an attack in April that marred a 40-day ceasefire marking Ramadan that was otherwise hailed as a major stride forward in peace talks between BRN and the Thai government.
At the time, Kasturi said PULO had carried out the twin bombings – which killed one and injured three – because it was sidelined from peace talks and wanted to be included.
He also said then that PULO would not join negotiations if they were conducted under the Thai Constitution – a framework that appears to rule out independence for the restive region, analysts say.
But Kasturi seems to have changed his tune since then.
“Regarding the Thai constitution, we are OK with it, but it must not be used as a condition in the peace talks,” he told BenarNews on Friday. “People have rights to choose their constitution.”
Next talks: July
On Monday, the Thai army commander for the southern region repeated an open invitation for PULO and other rebel groups to join the talks.
“I see it like this, to participate in the peace talks process, [Kasturi] may join with the BRN directly or under a similar umbrella group, like MARA Patani in the previous phase of talks,” Lt. Gen. Kriangkrai Srirak, the commander of the 4th Army Region, told reporters.
“How to arrange it? He can contact the Thai Peace Dialogue Panel. Gen. Wanlop would listen and respond so that both sides can meet.”
Lead government negotiator Gen. Wanlop Rugsanoah did not respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks, told BenarNews that no one had informed him of PULO’s overture, nor he did not expect them to. If PULO or any other group wants to have a say, “they should channel it directly to the Thai government, not me or Malaysia,” he said.
Previously, Wanlop and Rahim Noor had said the next round of talks would occur sometime in July.
PULO and BRN are considered the oldest secessionist movements along the Thai-Malaysian border in the Thailand’s Deep South, a region that encompasses the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala, and four districts of neighboring Songkhla province. The mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking region was annexed by Thailand in 1909 as part of a treaty with Britain.
Established in 1968, PULO was the most influential group waging an insurgency against Buddhist-majority Thailand until the 1990s, but it has been dormant for the past few years. Before April, the group’s last-known attack occurred in 2016. Military sources estimate that PULO has more than 100 fighters.
Since the Deep South insurgency reignited in January 2004, BRN, which was founded in 1963, has emerged as the most potent armed group in southern Thailand.
Kasturi was one of the representatives in the MARA Patani dialogue panel that held talks with government from 2015-2019. The panel included BRN members, two factions of PULO and two other rebel groups.
BRN’s lead negotiator, Anas Abdulrahman, said his group did not object to PULO joining the talks, in accordance with the 2019 Berlin Initiative framework, which stipulates that interested parties can select two representatives to accompany the dialogue panel.
“BRN will continue to become the main negotiator,” Anas said on Wednesday. He added that representatives from other groups could voice their concerns during technical discussions and participate in panel discussions with the Thai government.
“But if they want to participate, they have to respect the ethics and procedures of BRN,” he said, without elaborating.
MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez said his group planned to participate when the peace talks take on substantive issues.
“Right now, the discussion is still in the confidence-building phase,” he told BenarNews on Friday. At this phase, BRN is the only entity that will engage with Thai officials.”
‘A promising development’
Including other groups in the talks would be a positive step, a Thai analyst said, while warning that an outfit’s military prowess alone should not determine its bargaining power.
“This is a promising development, that the BRN’s head of the dialogue panel reaffirmed the group’s commitment to the principle of inclusivity,” Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a lecturer at Prince of Songkla University’s Institute for Peace Studies, told BenarNews.
She said the overture indicated that the longstanding tension between BRN and other rebel groups were easing, which means they could potentially represent a more united voice of Deep South communities.
“The peace process should not be a discussion between the Thai government and the BRN alone. The selection of separatist groups to the negotiation table should not be mainly based on their military capability,” Rungrawee said Thursday.
“In the long term, not only should the peace process incorporate other separatist groups at the formal negotiating table, but it should also enable various stakeholders to take part and have their voices heard,” she said.
Rungrawee called on all Deep South residents to be engaged in the peace talks efforts.
“While Malay Muslims are minorities in Thailand, they form a majority in the Deep South. The peace process needs to listen to minorities in the area, such as Buddhists and [ethnic] Chinese,” she said. “Eventually, it is also important for people in other parts of Thailand to better understand and support this peace process if it is to succeed.”
On Thursday, Thai National Security Council chief Gen. Supoj Malaniyom said his agency was finalizing a plan for 2023 to 2027 that includes aiming to end the conflict. He said details would be made public following cabinet approval.