Can Thai peace talks with rebels succeed?

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Soldiers hold their weapons at a checkpoint in the troubled southern province of Yala, 28 February 2013Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The Thai military is uneasy about concessions which may give insurgents greater legitimacy

Ever since a dramatic raid on a Thai army base in January 2004 announced an aggressive new drive for a separate Islamic state in the far south of Thailand, a great deal about this insurgency has remained a puzzle.

Who are its leaders? What exactly do they want? How many are there? Are they prepared to negotiate?

It seems some of them are. Hassan Taib, from an older generation of campaigners who largely abandoned their armed struggle against the Thai state in the 1990s, has just signed an agreement with Lt-Gen Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council.

It sets out a loose framework for talks between the two sides, due to start in two weeks.

Official recognition

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The deal was signed in Malaysia, where Ms Yingluck (L) is visiting

That is significant progress. It commits the Thai government to recognise the insurgents as a negotiating partner with political demands that must be listened to.

But who does Hassan Taib represent? He is from one of the many factions of PULO (Pattani United Liberation Organisation), which has had little role in the recent insurgency.

Now he calls himself a leader of the BRN (Barisan Revolusi Nasional), another broad umbrella group with little influence over the fighters on the ground.

Last year, he was involved in a previous attempt at peace talks with Thaksin Shinawatra, the exiled former prime minister and sister of the current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

Those talks went nowhere. There was an uproar in Thailand when it was revealed that Mr Thaksin was involved.

No demands

Image source, AFP
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There are almost-daily attacks in Thailand's south

The movement thought to be closer to the fighters, or juwae as they call themselves, is a more militant breakaway from the BRN, the BRN-C. But it has no clear leadership and is not thought to be involved in this latest initiative.

Indeed, the young men who carry out the almost-daily attacks in Thailand's southernmost provinces have shown no signs of being ready to talk about anything.

They do not speak to journalists or officials or make any demands.

If there is one man who might be able to act as a bridge between the militants and those like Hassan Taib, who say they are negotiating for them, it is probably Sapae-ing Basor, says Don Pathan, who has been reporting the southern conflict for more than a decade.

He is the former head of an Islamic school who is often referred to as a kind of spiritual leader for Malay Muslims in Thailand.

But he has been in hiding since criminal charges were brought against him eight years ago. The Thai government has not indicated any willingness to reach out to him or offer him immunity.

Why now?

Nor has the Thai side expressed any readiness to discuss political concessions like autonomy, which might tempt some of the insurgents to support the talks.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Mr Taib is from an older generation of campaigners

Yingluck Shinawatra did air the idea of autonomy in her election campaign of 2011, but swiftly dropped it after strong opposition from the army.

The Thai military, which is the dominant force in the far south, is uneasy about any concessions which might give the insurgents greater legitimacy or threaten the integrity of the state.

So why has this initiative been announced now, with such fanfare?

The enthusiasm of the Malaysian government is one factor. Prime Minister Najib Razak must call an election within the next few weeks - success, or the appearance of it, in helping fellow Malays over the border might help bolster his sliding support.

Ms Yingluck too would like to be able to show some progress, after a daring raid by the insurgents on an army base this month brought home to Thais how little has been done to end the conflict.

Perhaps, once the talks get started, they may acquire enough momentum to attract the interest of some of the fighting groups on the ground.

Only when they are involved, along with civil society groups with strong roots in the far south, is any meaningful progress likely to occur.