For Southern Thailand, Still No Peace

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After a bloodless coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September, hopes were high that Thailand's new military leaders would take steps to bring peace to the southern part of the country, plagued by a bloody Muslim insurgency since 2004. So far, though, the violence has continued unabated: in the past three months, an estimated 200 people have died in insurgent attacks and clashes with the army. On Wednesday, two Buddhists were killed in a drive-by shooting in Yala province.

Even before coup leader Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin called peace in the region "a top priority", hopes were high that some sort of truce could be reached. In December 2005, representatives from five Muslim insurgent groups met secretly with senior Thai military and intelligence officers in Langkawi, Malaysia to develop a peace plan for the South—a conference mediated by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. But now, a top member of Mahathir's mediating team tells TIME that the dialogue between the government and the rebels is at a dead end. And although Interim Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has made several gestures of goodwill towards Thailand's southern Muslims, he has said he has no intention of meeting with the insurgent leaders. "What I'm trying to do is to talk to the majority of people," he told the Al Jazeera news network, "not a small group of people."

While there has been scant public evidence of what might be causing the rift, sources close to the Langkawi negotiations say that the new Thai leadership is balking over elements of a secret peace plan drafted by the negotiators in Langkawi. Titled "A Joint Peace and Development Programme for Southern Thailand" and shown to TIME by an insurgent leader who represented his group at the talks and requested that his name not be published, the 16-page document outlines seven points of agreement reached by Thai officials and rebels during the Langkawi meeting. They include the reestablishment of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC), an important development office for the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat closed by Thaksin in 2002; establishing a program for the economic development of the region on par with the rest of the country; and the recognition of southern Muslims as a distinct ethnic group, with Malay an official language in the south.

But the plan's thorniest issues center around the Thai government's promises to set up an independent tribunal to try army officers for alleged human rights violations and to grant amnesty to all insurgents. It's those conditions that Thailand's new military rulers are accused of dragging their feet on. "We believe the Thai government is not prepared to get high-ranking army officers who committed violence and human rights abuses against Malay Muslims to face trial," says the Malaysian negotiator. Until the government returns to the negotiating table, a solution to the south's problems could be a long way away. "The Thai government sooner or later will have no option but to talk to the insurgent leaders," says Singapore-based counterterrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna. "Otherwise the violence will spread to other areas."

When reached for comment, representatives of the Thai government and foreign ministry said they had no information on the Langkawi talks. But other fronts, Surayud has moved quickly to resolve many of the insurgents' grievances. In a series of visits to the embattled region, he has publicly apologized for rights abuses committed by Thaksin's government, and released 58 suspected militants from prison. He has already begun to institute various points of the Langkawi plan, reopening the SBPAC and announcing the formation of a special economic zone to boost development in the impoverished region. The rebel representative who provided the documents to TIME says Surayud's moves won't be enough to restore peace. "They must set up the tribunal and grant us amnesty," he says. "Without this, the talks would go nowhere."