||Asean Affairs 13 June 2013
Thai Muslims debate their future as peace talks raise hope
PATTANI, Thailand : Huddled in a room on the periphery of a university campus in the southern Thai province of Pattani, Muslim students debate ideas that have long been considered inflammatory or even treasonous.
An insurgency by shadowy Muslim fighters in predominantly Buddhist Thailand’s three southernmost provinces has claimed 5,700 lives since 2004.
Just a few hundred kilometres from tourist beaches, the conflict rarely hits the headlines but the failure to stamp it out is an embarrassment for a country that prides itself on being a developed, international business and travel hub.
There are signs that the government has become more conciliatory since it agreed to hold talks in February with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), a major rebel group.
The student gathering this month at the university and debate of concepts such as autonomy would have been rare, if not impossible, a few years ago.
Those present would have risked being detained on charges of sedition.
The Thai constitution sets out that the country’s territory is indivisible and talk of separatism is tantamount to treason.
Few details have emerged from two preliminary rounds of peace talks, brokered by neighbouring Malaysia, between the government and the BRN. Some rebels have called for a degree of self-rule.
On Wednesday, Thai officials will sit down for a third round of talks with the BRN to try to resolve Southeast Asia’s deadliest internal conflict.
Despite hopes for change that the talks have brought, those attending the student gathering were still nervous.