(Reuters) – Thailand’s junta needs to show greater flexibility in talks with Malay Muslim insurgents to bring on board the main rebel group that is still fighting and end decades of bloodshed, a senior group member told Reuters.
In a rare interview, Pak Fakih of the secretive Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) said the army’s current peace talks with other factions were doomed and the government must drop pre-conditions, show greater respect to the separatists and adopt a more open-minded approach.
“It is a mistake to think that we do not want to negotiate. We do, but not under the current circumstances,” said Fakih, 67, who said he had been fighting since he was 15 and lost a son in the conflict seven years ago.
More than 6,500 people have been killed since 2004 alone in the insurgency in the south of mostly Buddhist Thailand.
A soldier and a policeman were killed on Thursday and 26 people wounded by roadside bombs which followed a new session of talks in Malaysia between the army and other insurgent factions.
The BRN never claims or rejects any specific attack and Fakih said that policy would continue. It is widely seen as the group with the greatest control over combatants in the three southern provinces.
“Our attacks are confined to the Deep South and are about sending a signal to the Thai government. We never want to cause widespread harm,” said Fakih, who declined to be photographed.
“The government say they are fighting ghosts in the south so we want to show them that we exist and we mean business.”
The Thai government made no immediate comment.
In April, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha rejected a BRN offer of talks mediated by a neutral third party and said they required no international mediation or observation.
The government also sets recognition of Thailand’s constitution as a pre-condition – a dealbreaker for the BRN.
Until they were annexed in 1909, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate. Insurgent groups have long emphasized that their struggle is about identity and not a religious war.
“We and the people are like fish and water: inseparable,” Fakih said.
The BRN had been part of talks before the army seized power in 2014, but stayed out when negotiations restarted under the army in 2015. Talks have taken place between the government and Mara Patani, an umbrella group claiming to represent all major rebel factions. But Fakih disputed its claim to include BRN members too, saying there were only “former members”.
He said that the Thai government’s policy toward the South was also complicated by different factions in the security forces jockeying for power.
“They are fighting for control over the budget in administering the region rather than actually listening to what we have to say,” he said.
Editing by Matthew Tostevin and Clarence Fernandez