Thai protests push rebel peace talks down agenda
A Thai anti-government protester rides past barricades during a rally at Government House in Bangkok on January 2, 2014
More than 5,900 people have been killed in near daily shootings, bomb attacks and ambushes in the kingdom's Muslim-dominated deep south near the border with Malaysia.
It is a complex, vicious and highly localised war whose victims have overwhelmingly been civilians, but it is largely ignored in the rest of Thailand and among the international community.
January 4 marks the 10th anniversary of a rebel raid on an army store in 2004 when hundreds of weapons were seized to fight the Thai state, which annexed the south a century ago.
The incident is widely seen as marking the start of the current conflict, although armed groups had been active in the region for decades, particularly in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
The roots of the insurgency draw on long-standing anger at efforts to assimilate ethnic Malay Muslims and at a perceived lack of respect for local language, religion and customs.
The incident was followed in April that year by a controversial army raid on a mosque in the region in which 32 suspected militants were killed.
Then in October 85 Muslim protesters died, most of them by suffocation as they were detained, bound and then piled onto military trucks.
In the years since then shadowy insurgents have battled Thai security forces in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and parts of neighbouring Songkhla.
About 30,000 soldiers are stationed in the region along with thousands of paramilitary troops providing protection to local villagers, teachers, monks and other top targets.
Last year several rounds of tentative peace discussions raised cautious optimism for a political solution to the conflict.
In an apparent breakthrough, the hitherto publicity-shy Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group made open demands.
Representatives of a number of other smaller rebel groups also appeared poised at one point to join the dialogue, boosting the once-distant prospects of a deal that could carry traction with the rebel footsoldiers.
But the talks stalled as the BRN waited for the government to respond to its five-point peace proposal, and near daily attacks still hit the region.
Further discussions have now been postponed as the crisis-hit Thai government handles massive street protests in Bangkok aimed at toppling Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The embattled premier dissolved parliament in early December and called snap polls for February 2 in bid to assuage anti-government protesters, but the crisis has shown little sign of abating.
National Security Council (NSC) chief Paradorn Pattanatabut said the southern peace talks could resume in January if "the protest situation gets better".
"I am worried (about the peace talks) but not too much," he said. "We will not quit the talks."
Another source close to discussions was less bullish, telling AFP that the Bangkok political drama has caused uncertainty.
"There won't be any dialogue in January," the source said, requesting anonymity.
The delay has fanned fears of a loss of momentum in a complex and fragile process.
Who will be sitting at the table when -- and if -- they next meet is now also up for debate. A change of government could potentially see the Thai negotiating team shuffled.
"The talks are clinging on," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of conflict monitor Deep South Watch at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.
"We have to wait for the old government or a new one to take them forward," he said, before sounding a note of optimism that the political will exists for dialogue to continue whoever is in charge.
The rebels have offered to scale back violence over the next year in an effort to secure a comprehensive peace deal.
Some observers say the BRN's 32-page "roadmap" to peace, detailing their key demands and a timescale for an end to violence, signalled a step change in attitude after 10 years of violence.
The demands included the recognition of the BRN as a "liberation organisation", the acceptance of the "sovereignty" of the "Patani Malay nation", the release of detainees and the invitation of foreign observers at the talks.
The rebel group has not called for a separate state.
Thailand is yet to address the demands, and the political unrest in Bangkok makes any politically sensitive statement -- such as discussion of decentralisation of power -- increasing unlikely.
The BRN considers Thailand's sluggishness as a snub of sorts and "therefore refuses to have any meeting, either formal or informal," for the time being, according to the source close to the peace talks.
As the months have gone by, splits also appear to have grown within the opaque rebel movement in a sign they may too be changing their negotiating team.
For people living in the conflict zone, the uncertainty has doused hopes for peace anytime soon.
There is little love lost for Thai authorities after decades of alleged human rights abuses, but many are also weary of war and and condemn the Bangkok protesters for putting the peace dialogue on the back burner.
"We are sick of the anti-government protests," said Danyal Abdulloh, a peace activist in the south.
"This government talks about building peace," he said. "That's why I'm rooting for the ruling party."
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