AUTHORITIES seeking to maintain public safety in the Deep South have assured that seven urban safety zones are well protected, with strict patrols to guard against attacks by insurgents.
However, an academic has warned that in order to secure safe zones for local people, the authorities must be sincere in their peace talks and negotiations with insurgent groups.
The car-bomb attack at the Big C department store in Pattani last month caused wide public concern – despite the fact no-one was killed – about security in the area, as insurgents had targeted civilians in an area proposed as a safety zone.
Col Pramote Phrom-in, a spokesman for Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC) Region 4 Forward Command, said the Pattani blast showed that the insurgents could not enter ‘safe areas’ in core economic centres anymore, so they had opted for an easy target outside the safe areas.
“We aim to provide security for the people in the Deep South, so they can live without fear of an insurgent attack. Right now, the government has created seven safety zones in the core urban areas of Songkhla, Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat, and so far this effort has proven to be effective in reducing the number and severity of attacks within the safe areas,” Pramote said.
The seven safe zones proclaimed by the government in 2012 are – Muang Pattani, Muang Narathiwat, Muang Yala, Betong district in Yala, Su-ngai Kolok and Tak Bai in Narathiwat, plus Hat Yai in Songkhla. Each area has many patrols by police, local authorities, Volunteer Defence Corps, local volunteers, and emergency service officers. And entrances to these areas are heavily guarded with several |security checkpoints.
One “successful” example is Betong. Authorities say that due to the tight security in Betong, the only insurgent attack in the city was three years ago and it is now perfectly safe.
Aside from the deployment of patrols to keep the city safe, Pramote revealed that officials were trying to negotiate with insurgent groups to designate joint operation safety zones.
“The authorities are now seeking mutual agreements with the insurgent groups to stop inhumane attacks on civilians and jointly designate safety zones. But right now there is still no substantial progress on this effort yet,” he said.
“The timeframe for negotiation on safety zones is flexible and right now we are trying to build confidence about each other. Moreover, ISOC has a duty to provide a good atmosphere for talks.”
On February 28, the peace talks committee and an umbrella organisation for movements seeking independence in the Deep South – Majlis Syura Patani (MARA Patani) – met in Kuala Lumpur to select five safety zones in the region, saying they would select one to be a pilot area.
However, Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of the Centre for Conflict Studies and Cultural Diversity at Prince of Songkla University, said the proposed safety zones were just part of operations by the authorities and could not guarantee that people’s lives would be safe.
“People in the public sector in the Deep South suggested that the safety zone should designate public areas such as hospitals, schools, temples, mosques, or markets – not a geographical area. But whatever kind of safety zones are set up, it is very |crucial that the authorities are sincere about starting negotiations [for peace],” Srisompob said.
“A safety zone can be achieved if both sides of the conflict negotiate and control armed forces in the area. The authorities also have to respect human rights and stop all violent activities that may spark new conflict.”
He explained that the insurgency was not acts of terrorism, because the groups involved had different goals from terrorist groups.
“This is insurgency. The attackers need to have popular support from local people in order to operate against the government. So most attacks have been attacks on authorities and avoid civilians,” he said.
“They sometimes attack soft |targets to signal a message to the authorities, like the attack at Big C Pattani, but we can see that they did not aim to cause vast casualties.”
Meanwhile, Meela, a resident |in Bannang Sata in Yala said local |people had got used to the danger of the insurgency.
But she welcomed the idea of |safety zones in public areas.
“There are not many attacks near my community, but that does not mean that we are safe. We just live normally,” she said. “It would be good for people to have some assurance that they will be safe in public areas, so it would be more comfortable for us to make a living without fear of attack.”