Muslim rebels' new umbrella group seeks Thai peace talks

KUALA LUMPUR • A new umbrella group of Muslim rebels waging a bloody insurgency in southern Thailand called yesterday for a resumption of stalled peace talks, but it was unclear whether the Thai military junta would recognise it.

Representatives of Mara Pattani, which claims to speak for six leading rebel organisations, said they met Thai officials during exploratory talks in Malaysia this week.

"Our principle is to find a solution through peaceful dialogue," group chairman Awang Jabat told reporters at a briefing on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. "We hope we can bring the conflict to an end and promote a lasting peace."

He said Thai representatives at this week's dialogue were non-committal; they said they had to consult with junta leaders.

Junta spokesman Werachon Sukhondhapatipak, in comments to Agence France-Presse in Bangkok, seemed to cast doubt on a speedy resumption of peace talks.

"(The peace talks) are an issue for the security agencies. Don't give any importance to brand-new organisations," he said.

Various shadowy Muslim groups are fighting for a level of autonomy from Thailand, which is largely Buddhist. More than 6,400 people have been killed, mostly civilians.

Malaysia hosted several rounds of peace talks in 2013 between one insurgent group and a previous Thai government. The dialogue made little headway, and was cut off by a Thai political crisis that culminated in last year's army coup.

Experts say the peace effort has been hampered by divisions within insurgent groups, as well as doubts over whether negotiators in previous talks - from the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) - truly represented fighters on the ground.

Mr Awang Jabat said Mara Pattani includes BRN, along with five other factions. When the group met Thai officials this week, it sought immunity for rebels for past violence as a condition for resuming talks. Previously, such proposals were met coolly by the junta, which so far seems unwilling to compromise, undercutting hopes of resuming full negotiations.

The insurgents also said peace talks should be enshrined by Parliament as a national objective, to avoid future negotiations being scuppered again by changes in government.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 28, 2015, with the headline 'Muslim rebels' new umbrella group seeks Thai peace talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe