Sonthi calls for talks
Army chief goes against government stance to suggest negotiations with troublemakers in a bid to end strife
The Army yesterday for the first time openly expressed willingness to hold talks with leaders of the militants behind the continuing violence in the South, whoever they might be.
"We still don't know who is the real head of the militants we are fighting with," Army chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin told reporters.
"But we're not alone, it's the same situation around the world including in Iraq, where we don't know much about the adversary," he said.
So far no group has either claimed responsibility or declared a reason for the acts of violence that have claimed some 1,400 lived in the predominantly Muslim region since the end of 2003.
Sonthi floated the idea of negotiations a day after simultaneous bomb attacks on 22 commercial banks in southernmost Yala province killed a retired military officer and wounded 24 people.
Sonthi said the fact that the explosions coincided with the anniversary of the founding of the separatist Bersatu movement and the Malaysian National Day offered some clues to implicate certain organisations.
The United Front for the Independence of Pattani, or Bersatu, was formed on August 31, 1989, with the objective of unifying all splinter secessionist groups. It is believed to be the umbrella organisation for the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) Mai (the "New Pulo"), the original Pulo, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani (BRN) and Gerakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani (GMIP).
In June 2004, authorities failed to establish a dialogue with Bersatu leader-in-exile Wan Kadir Che Man after he extended an olive branch. Government security officials were at odds over the offer, with hardliners arguing that meeting with the Bersatu leader would automatically upgrade the status of a movement they believed was dying out.
"We have heard that Bersatu is the head. It might be a political front. We don't know if it's real but why don't we try to explore what it is," Sonthi said.
The government has refused to bargain with the insurgents, but Sonthi's statements indicate that that approach may have reached a dead end.
"Unless we negotiate with their head, we can't restore peace and reconcile with them," he said, adding that any contact would have to begin at a low level.
The Army chief, a Muslim, also expressed frustration with caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's questions about the competence of field operations.
"I don't want to see a situation where one political party points the finger at another party and then the latter puts all the blame on field officers," he said.
"Why don't we sit together to brainstorm solutions and encourage the officers on the ground?"