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Thailand Says Peace Talks with Muslim Insurgents Still on Track After Major Rebel Assault

A Thai officer stands beside the burnt down oil tanker at a gas station in Pattani province, southern Thailand, Aug. 17, 2022.
A Thai officer stands beside the burnt down oil tanker at a gas station in Pattani province, southern Thailand, Aug. 17, 2022.

A series of coordinated violent attacks that rocked Thailand’s far south this week will not derail peace talks or negotiations for a long-sought ceasefire with Muslim insurgents, the government’s chief negotiator said Thursday.

Thailand’s military says 17 sites across the country’s three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala were hit by bomb and arson attacks in quick succession late Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning — mostly convenience shops, general retail stores and gas stations. Authorities say a 21-year-old local man was killed in one of the ensuing fires and that seven others were slightly injured.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest of Thailand’s Muslim rebel groups, claimed responsibility for the attacks in a post to its Facebook page Thursday and apologized for the death. The group said it chose the targets as symbols of Thai capitalism that it blamed for destroying community businesses.

The assault, rare in its scale for recent years, came amid modest progress after years of faltering peace talks between BRN and the government’s Peace Dialogue Panel. After a sharp drop in violence over the Muslim holy month of Ramadan earlier this year, ascribed to a mutual truce arranged beforehand, both sides agreed to start negotiations on a more durable cease-fire with a joint mechanism for investigating any alleged breaches.

General Wanlop Rugsanaoh, who heads the Peace Dialogue Panel, told VOA Thursday that the latest attacks would not upset those talks.

“The Peace Dialogue Panel would like to reaffirm that, regardless of the situation on the ground, we will maintain our commitment to move forward through peaceful means, according to the government policy, in order to bring sustainable peace and harmony to the people in the area,” he said by text message.

“The next dialogue meeting is planned tentatively to be in the next 1-2 months and it is still on,” he added.

The general also confirmed that the proposal for a three- to four-month ceasefire with BRN “will still be on the agenda of the meeting.”

Wanlop nonetheless condemned the spate of attacks.

“Not only [do] these incidents affect the livelihood of the people and the economy in the area; they also have negative impact on the peaceful environment and trust people have in the peace dialogue process, which [has] been progressing steadily,” he said.

Rebel and local rights groups accuse the government of seeking to suppress the south’s historic Malay Muslim heritage, a legacy of the Patani sultanate the British Empire deeded to the then-king of Siam in 1909. More than 7,300 people have been killed in fighting aimed at restoring the south’s independence since violence flared up last in 2004 and the government imposed martial law over the region.

In what is believed to be the deadliest attack since then, suspected insurgents shot and killed 15 local defense volunteers in November 2019.

In range and scale, though, this week’s bomb and arson attacks were the largest in at least five years, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a lecturer at southern Thailand’s Prince of Songkla University who follows the fighting and peace talks.

Given the scale, Srisompob said he believed BNR also meant to send the government the message that the talks were moving too slowly.

“There are many arguments, disagreements between both parties. They are going to solve [them] in the process, but it’s going to take some time,” he said. “This is a message from the insurgents that they would like to speed up the process.”

The civilian targets, he added, also suggest the rebels intended to remind locals that the insurgents’ cause was still far from won.

“In recent years ... the level of violence [has] become lower,” Srisompob said, “so more and more people have the feeling that ... the insurgency has gone away.”

This week’s attacks, he added, were “to alert the people that, no, this is not the normal situation, there are still many things that need to be resolved in the political conflict.”

BRN did not immediately reply to a request for comment via its Facebook page.