In talks, Muslim rebels seek independence in south Thailand


Muslim militant leaders in talks with Thai authorities to end a deadly insurgency said last week that they are seeking an independent state and are ready to negotiate a solution.

Six insurgent groups, united in a coalition called the Pattani Consultative Council, participated in three days of informal peace talks ending on Thursday in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "We want to stress that we did not drop our demand for independence. That will be the final aim for the Pattani struggle, but we are ready to sit at the negotiation table to find a solution that will give Muslims the right to determine their own future" in the predominantly Buddhist country, council representative Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told a news conference.

He said the Pattani people will ultimately decide whether the solution will be an independent state or autonomy under the Thai government for the three southernmost provinces. More than 5,000 people have been killed in the insurgency since 2004.

Malaysia, whose northern states border Thailand's south, facilitated bringing the insurgents to the talks. Former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's government agreed in 2013 to launch formal peace talks with one militant group, but they never happened following a military coup.

Pattani council chief Awang Jabat said the coalition wants the peace talks to be put on the national agenda to ensure continuity if a new government comes into power.

During the talks in Kuala Lumpur, the coalition sought immunity for the negotiating team to ensure their freedom of travel in the provinces, he said. Meanwhile, the Thai government raised the issues of creating a safety zone and economic development among others.

The government negotiators did not attend the news conference. It is unclear how much support the coalition has on the ground. It comprises of the National Revolutionary Front, the Pattani Islamic Mujahiddeen Movement, the Islamic Liberation Front of Pattani and three factions from the Pattani United Liberation Organization.

Awang Jabat said the coalition invited all stakeholders into the process to unify their efforts for self-determination. They want to ensure Islamic laws and regulations are enforced and that the Muslim identity is preserved, in terms of language and Jawi writing. Jawi is the Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language. He warned that there will be more violence until the right of self-determination for Muslims is guaranteed.

The date for the next round of talks has not been decided.    (AP)

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