“Safety Zone” to be implemented in 1 district in restive Deep South

The Thai government and a Muslim Malay liberation organization have reached an agreement to make one district of the Deep South safe for civilians. This is a breakthrough development in the peace process initiated in 2014.
On 19 February 2018, Gen Aksara Kerdphol, the head of Thailand’s peace talks team, told the media that both parties had settled on one district in the Deep South as a “safety zone” (SZ) This announcement confirms an earlier statement by Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, spokesperson of Mara Patani.
According to Aksara and Abu Hafez, both sides will allow freedom of expression for local people and establish a coordination centre aka a “safe house.” This pilot project will take six months. The first three months are for preparation and the last three months are for implementation. The agreement was reached during talks in Kuala Lumpur in January. 
Abu Hafez revealed that MARA proposed five possible districts, two in Narathiwat, two in Yala and one in Pattani. In the end, they agreed on one district. Due to the protocol of the negotiations, this district will not be disclosed to the public.
According to the spokesperson, in the chosen district, both parties will refrain from all actions where civilian casualties are anticipated. If an incident happens, both sides will cooperate in searching for the perpetrators. People will be allowed to voice opinions freely, especially on politics, and will not face harassment or intimidation.  
“Is it a cease-fire or a safe-area model? The answer is neither,” said Abu Hafez. “The SZ is first of all about civilian protection. In any designated SZ, the safety and well-being of civilians in their day-to-day lives is a priority.”

Abu Hafez Al-Hakim

Isara News Agency speculated that the Safe House would be located at an office building of the Islamic Committee of Pattani, Muang District, Pattani. 
The implementation of SZ is part of the confidence-building exercise, the earliest stage of the peace process. It would be a testing ground to see if both parties could work with each other after years of armed fighting and their ability to curb violence, according to Abu Hafez. 
Negotiations between the Thai state and liberation movement in Patani or Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, namely Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat and four districts of Songkla, have been proceeding for more than a decade, although in secret. Analysts say that the Thai state has never been sincere or serious about negotiations, only viewing them as opportunities to identify core members of the insurgent groups. 
The first open negotiation “Dialogue 1” was between Yingluck Shinawatra’s administration and BRN, the movement with the most manpower in the field, in 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, with Malaysia acted as a facilitator. However, Dialogue 1 was ended abruptly after the Yingluck administration was overthrown. The military coup in May 2014 that installed a junta led by Gen Prayuth Chan-o-cha has started Dialogue 2, with its first informal talk in June 2015. The liberation groups have established MARA Patani as an umbrella organization for the talk. MARA Patani has been heavily criticised as a false representation of the liberation movement because it allegedly lacks control over the rank-and-file fighters. 



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