BANGKOK: Since the restart of the peace talks in the deep south between the Thai military government and the southern separatist groups in 2015, progress has been slow. And with violent attacks still occurring, effectiveness of the peace process itself is being called into question.

In an exclusive interview with Channel NewsAsia, Abu Hafez Al-Hakim – the spokesperson for Mara Patani, the umbrella group made up of long-standing separatist groups that are taking part in the peace talks – says the talks offer an alternative to the ongoing armed conflict.

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

“We never abandoned our idealism for independence,” said Al-Hakim.

“But when we go to the negotiation table, we must be realistic. And we must see what are the practical things that we should put on the table that are acceptable to the other party, whereby, at the end of the road, everybody will be happy.”

But peace remains elusive despite the strong commitment to the talks by Mara Patani and the Thai military government.

“There has been a continuity in the peace talks”, says retired General Manee Jantip who is one of the 13 members of the so-called “forward cabinet”, created to take charge of administering agencies relating to the Deep South.

“We are still in first phase which is trust building”, said Manee.

“The second phase will be when we can strike and agreement that could end violence, and the third phase is when both sides can create a roadmap towards peace”.

Violence attacks continues despite the talks.

Since Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha came to power in 2014, nearly 1,000 people have been killed from more than 2,000 violence incidents relating to the insurgency.

According to the Thai government, many of these incidents were perpetrated by militants linked to separatist groups not controlled by those in Mara Patani.

These attacks have prompted calls from Bangkok for the peace talks to be sped up.

“We should try to sort this out as soon as we can so we can start talking about the real problems and work together to address them”, said Major General Sitthi Trakullwong who is the secretary of the Thai peace talks team.

“I believe that if the peace process is more accepted, those that operate in the shadow or those that breed violence will be revealed.”

Some observers say the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani or BRN has been responsible for most of the recent violence in the Deep South because the group controls a vast majority of the combatant on the ground.

“The Thai realise that but they continue to talk to Mara Patani to buy time with the hope that BRN will come on board”, said Don Pathan who is an independent security analyst.

“They’re hoping that people on the ground will become tired and fatigue of the violence and turn their back on the BRN, thus deny them the legitimacy. But that hasn’t happen; the support from grass root community for the BRN is still very strong,” said Don.

Earlier this year the BRN issued a rare public statement saying that they are not happy with the current peace process. They wanted more involvement in the talks, while questioning the impartiality of Malaysia as a mediator of the peace process.

Many observers say the statement actually represent a change that could eventually have a positive outcome on the current peace process.

“In the past there are BRN members who disagree with the talks”, said Dr Srisompop Jitpiromsi who is the Director of Deep South Watch.

“But this statement signal a change that they do not reject the talks, rather they want to take part in it under their own terms,” said Dr Srisompop.

Al-Hakim of Mara Patani also agree with this assessment and says that the peace talks will likely take years, if not decades, because of the complexity involved.

“There are still hardliners among us, and as well, there are hardliners on the other side. But things have changed. We have to expect that.”

“If this process goes along there will positive changes along the way. The process is not just a two- or three-year affairs or five years. No, it is going to be five years, 10 years, 20 years I don’t know. I won’t be around. I won’t be able to see the fruit of this negotiation. But what is important for us, for this generation, is to stabilise the peace process.”

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