The Joint Development and Peace Plan for Southern Thailand has been drafted by Mahathir Mohamad, the former Malaysian prime minister, with the backing of the Thai king.

Since November 2005, Mahathir and his Perdana Leadership Foundation have met more than 60 leaders of insurgent groups operating in the south of Thailand.

Speaking to Aljazeera, the former leader's son, Mukhriz Mahathir, who has been a key participant at these meetings, said that from an early stage it was apparent that the common perception of many of the groups as "separatists" was mistaken.

"It became very clear to us that they weren't really interested in separating," he said.

Instead, the various groups who took part in the talks understood that independence was impractical and negotiation with the government may be the best option.
 
Participants

Participants in the negotiations included the Barisan Bersatu Kemerdekaan Pattani (Bersatu), the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) and the Gerakan Mujahiddin Pattani (GMP).

Mukhriz admits that the three umbrella groups may not be the ones involved in the daily attacks, but he says, a negotiated peace with them offers the best prospect for clearing the way to a broader settlement.

Thai troubles

 

Thai Muslims make up 4% of population, concentrated in Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla

 

Region was once part of Malay Muslim sultanate of Pattani, many continue to have close relations with Malaysia

 

Pattani became part of Thailand at the end of the second world war

 

More than 1,500 killed in southern Thailand since insurgency flared up in January 2004

"The fact that they are willing to sit at the negotiating table - the fact that they have already felt that separation is not the way to go - gives us a good window to negotiate or to mediate in this regard," he says.

"And we feel because of the influence that they have, perhaps at a later stage they can rein in the younger groups."
 
He is optimistic that once concrete progress is seen coming from the talks, and the sincerity of the government in Bangkok is shown, more groups will come on board.

One positive sign, he says, are moves to broaden the use of the Malay language as the teaching medium in schools in the south, as well as growth in funding for religious schools.

Thailand's Muslims make up about four per cent of the population and for most their demands are simple - they want the same rights to economic development and government services enjoyed by the rest of the kingdom.

Systemic corruption

The southern provinces are some of the poorest in the kingdom and over the years much developmental aid has gone missing due to systemic corruption in the provincial governments.

If changes are made, Mukhriz believes that, "then, perhaps, they will come to understand that there is actually progress - and it's from there that we hope to win their hearts over".

However, the Malaysian plan faces many obstacles before it can be implemented.

Mukhriz is optimistic about peace
prospects for southern Thailand

The first is getting political commitment and support from the Malaysian government.

A recent, very public spat between Mahathir and his successor, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has strained relations between the former leader and the government.

Sources close to Badawi say that although the prime minister is supportive of the peace plan, its success will only improve Mahathir's standing in the eyes of the public at a time when he has urged the ousting of the present prime minister because of alleged mismanagement.

Mukhriz says his father is not concerned because of Malaysia's overriding interest in maintaining peace in the region.

"We now have an open window to resolve this conclusively and I believe that the Malaysian government too is very committed to see this done because peace is not only good for southern Thailand, but also for Malaysia and for the region."
 
Another challenge is getting the present Thai government to accept the plan.

After the coup 

The initial deal was drafted under the government of Thaksin Shinawatra - who is now in exile after September's bloodless coup.

Thaksin was unwilling to negotiate a deal with the groups in the south, concerned that it would give them de-facto official recognition.

So, while the plan was signed by the various groups in the south and sent to Bangkok, the Thaksin administration effectively sat on the proposal.

Dozens of groups are thought to
be behind the attacks

Until the coup, many felt there was no prospect for a peace deal. Now, with the generals in charge in Bangkok and willing to re-start the stalled negotiations, Mukhriz is optimistic that the peace plan will gain a new lease of life.

At the same time, he warns that many other issues need to be addressed before a full and real peace can be brought to Thailand's south.

"It's not just insurgents," he says. "We have criminal activity, we have drug problems there, we have smuggling and then there are political vendettas, and personal conflicts."

None the less, he is betting on the fact that an end to political violence will have a knock-on effect on other causes of violence in the region.

"I think now that we have the momentum, we should run with it so that it reaches the positive result we want."