BANGKOK, Thailand -- Bangkok's coup-installed military regime has
agreed to give legal immunity to some of Thailand's Islamist
insurgents and allow them to travel internationally during peace talks
in the south where more than 6,000 people have died on all sides
during the past 12 years.
   The immunity and travel protection for the rebels increases the
likelihood that the talks can grapple with more serious issues in one
of Southeast Asia's long-running insurgencies, such as the denial of
justice and local participation for Muslims in the economically
depressed area.
   "The military will never defeat the guerrilla tactics of the
insurgents," said a Bangkok Post editorial on March 3.
   "The obvious stalemate cries for a political solution."
   The current peace talks however do not allow discussion of the
insurgents' demands for autonomy within Buddhist-majority Thailand or
an independent nation ruled by Islamic law.
   Meanwhile two rubber tree plantation workers -- a Muslim and a
Buddhist -- were gunned down in separate locations in Yala province on
March 2 and 3, in a trend of similar killings over the past decade to
convince farmers to flee, so Islamists can take over the south's
rubber production.
   After the Buddhist was killed, "his body was set on fire and left
charred," local police Col. Praponwat Khantiwaranant told Agence
   Also on March 3, a Muslim army ranger was shot dead in Yala
province, police said.
   A car bomb exploded on February 27 at a restaurant during lunch
near a Border Patrol Police base in neighboring Patani province,
injuring seven policeman and five civilians.
   No one claimed responsibility for the shootings or the car bomb
which occurred on the third anniversary of the troubled peace talks.
   Thailand's 70,000 security forces patrolling the south are
comprised of armed village and civil servant volunteers, police,
conscripted troops and career soldiers.
   They are battling 10,000 ethnic Malay-Thai Muslim insurgents, Maj.
Gen. Nakrob Boonbuathong said.
   Maj. Gen. Nakrob leads face-to-face peace negotiations from the
military regime's Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).
   "We never discuss anything about sovereignty or autonomy" for the
Muslim-majority southern provinces of Patani, Yala and Narathiwat and
parts of Songkhla, Maj. Gen. Nakrob said in a rare news conference
describing the talks.
   "We never ask for an ultimatum that, 'You have to do a cease-fire
first, then you can have the peace talks'," he said.
   "They asked for immunity for their people who sat down at the table
for the talks, so that they are not to be arrested during the talks.
   "They also want to freely travel in and out of the country," he
said speaking in Thai through an English-language translator at the
Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand on February 24.
   "Of course immunity can be given to these people, our counterparts
in the peace talks. However, to enter the country freely is
problematic because if we do that, then it is going to be a double
standard of, 'Why we give this privilege to these people?'
   "So we asked if we can use our executive power to give this
permission, so they can enter the country but they have to notify the
   Insurgents attending the peace talks "were quite pleased about
that" because it would allow them to travel to and from Thailand from
safe havens in other countries.
   "But there are still some hiccups. This is not concluded yet," the
senior ISOC officer said.
   In 2015, several Islamist and somewhat secular Muslim insurgent
groups joined a bloc called Mara Patani, or Majlis Syura Patani, to
reconvene the talks.
   Mara Patani includes hard-line representatives from the powerful
National Revolutionary Front, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
   "The BRN plays a big role in Mara Patani. But while we are sitting
down and talking, and the BRN is in the room, parallel to the talks
you can see the [September 2015] YouTube video of Abdul Karim coming
out and announcing that he disagrees with the peace talks, and that
violence is still the way of solving things with attacks on the
people, and on the soft targets, and on the vulnerable.
   "So we can see that they cannot control their own people yet," Maj.
Gen. Nakrob said.
   Abdul Karim Khalib, a senior BRN member who is wanted on a Thai
arrest warrant, attended peace talks with Thai officials only in 2013
in Malaysia where he is suspected of hiding.
   "The peace talks cannot be trusted not to repeat the deception the
[Thai] colonizers carried out in the past, because the colonizers are
known for manipulation and terrorism," Mr. Abdul Karim said in his
2015 video.
   He demanded "the right of self-determination of the Patani Malay
people" and vowed the "revolution" will continue until "independence
or martyrdom."
   Abu Hafez al-Hakim, representing Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani
insurgents, said in a separate one-hour interview in 2015 with
Prachatai TV that they demand an "independent Islamic state" which will
"implement the Islamic law" in the southern provinces.
   The public worries that Islamic laws will "cut your hands" off, he
said in English, describing sharia laws as "preventative in nature,
rather than primitive."
   "Non-Muslims should not be worried," Al-Hakim said.
   "We are not separatists, we are freedom fighters. We want to
liberate our land."
   Mara Patani also demands Thailand release all imprisoned rebels and
allow foreign governments and organizations to attend the peace talks.
   Bangkok's junta refuses to agree.
   The army said internationalizing the dispute may result in demands
for a United Nations-supervised referendum on independence in the
south, which could prove a majority of Muslims want to break away from
   "We have not lost our land yet, but if we are complacent and let
the U.N. intervene and hold a referendum, then we are finished,"
then-Deputy Army Chief Gen. Dapong Rattanasuwan said in 2012.
   In addition to some BRN rebels, Mara Patani's peace negotiators
include two factions of the Patani United Liberation Organization
(PULO), founded in 1968.
   Libya's then-dictator Moammar Gadhafi helped finance, train and arm
PULO during the 1980s.
   Mara Patani also includes the Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Patani
(GMIP) and Al-Hakim's Barisan Islam Pembebasan Patani (BIPP).
  The peace talks are "facilitated" by Muslim-majority Malaysia which
borders Thailand's southern war-torn provinces and is sometimes used
by insurgents as an illegal escape route.
   Unable to defeat the insurgents, Bangkok's U.S.-trained military is
instead trying to convince most of them to surrender, and slowly
squeeze the remaining fighters.
   "When we sat down for the peace talks, at least 50 percent [of the
insurgents] said, 'Oh, let's do it. I'm so sick of it'.  And 30
percent more are still unsure," the ISOC officer said.
   "But if you are the local [insurgent] people in the area, and
you've been fighting for five years, 10 years, all your life, you've
lost family members, you've been in pain and grief, and you've been
fighting and then a higher level [of senior insurgents] says, 'We are
going to start the peace talks,' -- why would you stop? Right?" Maj.
Gen. Nakrob said.
   "It's normal. This is the 15 to 20 percent of people who strongly
disagree. But our goal with the peace talks is we want to persuade
those 30 percent who are neutral to agree with the peace talks,
because that's our main goal.
   "The other 10 to 15 percent can be [pacified] much later on."
   Thailand's military seized power in May 2014 by ousting the elected
civilian government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
   Mrs. Yingluck's administration pushed the insurgents toward peace
talks in 2013.
   But thanks to the bloodless coup, the army is now better qualified
to solve the insurgency because the putsch shoved opportunistic
politicians aside, Maj. Gen. Nakrob said.
   "Why do I think the military government will be more likely to
succeed in this, rather than the [toppled] elected government? I think
the main problem of this country happens from politics."
   Politicians "try to win the votes of the people so they can be
elected as the local politician, or as the national politician. Have
you seen any Members of Parliament from the south try to solve the
problem of the south? Almost none.
   "But the army ourselves, we have no benefits from the south. We
don't get anything from it. We only die from the area because we send
the troops, and then they protect the country and then they die."
   Maj. Gen. Nakrob's altruistic statements differ from local and
international human rights organization's reports which accuse the
military and Islamists of torture, extrajudicial executions and other
   For years, politicians in virtually all parties ignored the
military's lack of discipline and have not prosecuted errant senior
   Southern criminals also make it difficult for peace to succeed, he said.
   "There are people who are drug dealers or criminals who trade
illegal goods...these people don't want peace to happen because they
can only do their business when it is an unsettled area where they are
doing the business."
   Thailand was known as Siam at the start of the 20th century when it
annexed the southern provinces which previously formed an ethnic Malay
Muslim land called Patani Darussalam which today would straddle the
current Thai-Malaysian border.
   ISOC was established more than 40 years ago to crush
Chinese-inspired communist insurgents throughout Thailand, including
the south.
   Some local Chinese communists, such as the late Chin Peng,
retreated into the south's hills where they reportedly collaborated
with the military against the Muslim separatists.
   In 2015, ISOC financed a two-hour romantic film titled, "Latitude
No. 6" about young Muslims falling in love in the south.
   The movie was roasted by the Bangkok Post's astute reviewer Kong
Rithdee as "soft propaganda" and a "happy pill" which was "sanitized,"
"ignorant" and "a sham".
   "None of the lead characters are played by real Muslims," Mr. Kong wrote.
   "The most shrewd move, however, is to minimize the presence of the
soldiers -- aka the financiers -- and when they do appear, they're the
force of humor and benevolence, at times accompanied by a dramatic
soundtrack that is way too loud.  One has no choice but to feel
   Other sops to the rebels also raised eyebrows.
   The Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center's chief Thawee
Sodsong said in 2013 while helping to arrange the peace talks:
   "We have asked that the uniforms of Muslim prisoners be altered to
be in line with their religious and cultural practices -- they now
have longer pants that reach down to the ankles."