Thailand, rebels set up ‘safety zone’ in search for peace

BANGKOK: As part of the trust-building measure, the Thai government and Mara Patani has agreed to set up a district-size “safety zone” before the end of the year. No district has been named so far.

Mara Patani is an umbrella organisation representing southern Thai rebel groups and factions.

The “safety-zone” will be run by a committee made up of representatives of the government, Mara Patani and community leaders. However, the framework does not include a ceasefire agreement, which means any violence could jeopardise the working arrangement.

For the Thais, the “safety-zone” will test Mara Patani’s command and control ability on the ground.

For Mara Patani, this “safety-zone” is also intended to become a free political space where the local people can voice their opinions without fear, and play a more active part in administering their community.

“Because we know the structure of Thai administration, decisions are always from the centre from Bangkok, not at the grassroots”, said Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, the spokesperson for Mara Patani.

Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, spokesperson for Mara Patani. (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)

“So this time around, this is what we are going to see: We want the people at the grassroots level to decide by themselves what they want, the people in this safety zone.”

On top of the “safety-zone”, the Thai government is also pushing a development programme in three districts in the deep south, intended to generate jobs and opportunity for the people in the area.

The initiative, known as “triangle of stability, prosperity, and suitability” include construction of a new airport in Betong district of Yala, incentives for agro-industry and businesses in Nong Chik district of Pattani and the promotion of Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat as a trade centre with neighbouring Malaysia.

“These districts will be a model for development in the area”, said Supanat Sirantawineti who is the Secretary-General of Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC).

Supanat Sirantawineti, Secretary-General of Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)

The SBPAC has also been sponsoring public seminars and discussions on the ongoing conflict and the peace process.

“Our goal is to get locals involved and understand the on-going peace talks that are taking place in Malaysia”, said Supanat. “Our culture might be different our language is different, our religion is different, but this country belong to all of us equally.”

He added: “This is what the late King Bhumibol has said about the deep south and we are using this as our approach to fix the problems here.”


Although a safety zone has yet to be set up, some locals have already taken it upon themselves to maintain peace. The Khlong Ching village in Mala sub-district of Yala, near the Thai-Malaysian border is one of them.

It is located in the “red zone”, which means it experiences higher levels of violence than other villages, but despite this there has not been any violent incident in the area for many years. Locals have said this is because the community takes the initiative and commitment towards maintaining law and order.

For years the villagers here, all Muslims, have armed themselves and fought alongside Thai authorities. Their leader said peace can only be achieved through strong enforcement of the law.

“People asked me how Buddhists and Muslims can co-exist peacefully here, I’d say it is all down to the community leaders,” said Yafa Yako who is a sub-district headman of Mala. “If the leader can built trust between everyone in the village then there is no problem.”

He added: “I have discussed the ongoing peace talk in Malaysia with other leaders around here, and most says what came out of the talks will not be effective.”


Apart from the short-term goal of establishing the safety-zone, the peace process between the Thai government and Mara Patani also faces historical challenges.

Veteran separatists who are talking to the Thai government have said they still see the conflict as an anti-colonial struggle against Bangkok.

They said issues like unjust treatment of the Malay minority, as well as century-old suppression of their identity, must be addressed in this peace process.

“The government in Bangkok has not acted justly as a government,” said Arief Mukhtar, who is a senior member of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO).

Arief Mukhtar, a senior member of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO). (Photo: Panu Wongcha-um)

“They do not used the rule of law in Patani, but often violence cases in the deep south do not get the same legal treatment as the rest of the country,” Arief said.

“These violations have continue the conflict,” Arief said. “Also Thailand needs to respect the Patani people, our culture and our language.”

The demand for recognition of a distinctive Malay identity in the south has been a historic cornerstone of the tension between the Thai government in Bangkok and those who have taken up the armed struggle in the southern provinces since the early 20th century.

For the separatists, these root causes to the conflict will need to eventually be addressed in the peace process.

“Until now, the government of Thailand does not recognise Patani people as different, not recognised their separate history,” said Aref. “They only recognized the problem as different political view, categorise it as though it’s the same as the red shirt, yellow shirt issue.”

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