The big issue: Nice talking to you
Winston Churchill referred to the "riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma". He was speaking of the actions of Russia as World War II began, but his colourful phrase doesn't do half justice to the deep South of Thailand.
Most wars, certainly including Churchill's, have clearly defined combatants, but not this so-called "low intensity conflict". And most states and armies are in a hurry, even a panic, to win and end a war, but not this 38-year test of wills.
In three days last week, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, his facilitator and his chief negotiator came up with two brand new reasons not to rush the latest attempt to prepare to start to get ready to begin to get down to discussions with the other side, whoever that is.
Which is part of the problem for the government, at least, and possibly for the facilitator, Malaysian intelligence, although it never shows all its Thai separatist cards. It's not entirely useful to have peace talks with people who can't declare peace when talks make progress. And in the South of Thailand, no one really knows who that is.
The separatists ... or are they insurgents or terrorists or (1980s alert) bandits? It's not even clear what they are, never mind who. Since the formation of the Patani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) in 1976, literally dozens of groups and factions have come along. Each claims to be the one, true enemy of the great Siamese Satan. In fact, no current group dominates, no individual leader has emerged. There is not even a coalition.
And that is only the second-biggest problem defined by the trio of men who will control the destiny of peace talks into the middle future.
They are prime ministers Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand (in charge of everything) and Najib Razak of Malaysia (the designated facilitator) and Gen Aksara Kerdpol (chief negotiator, if and when). They all met last Monday when Gen Prayut took Gen Aksara along on his “getting to know you” trip every prime minister makes to every Asean country. There was quite a change since February last year, when Malaysia helped to arrange the first peace talks between the former government and one of the southern belligerents, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN).
The prime ministers aren’t going to let the brusque and frankly competent Malaysian leader of the BRN dominate the next attempt at peace talks. Hassan Taib, a self-described ustaz (Muslim scholar), was recommended by Malaysia's intelligence agency for reasons that remain obscure.
He was a propaganda whizz, often running rings around the government’s negotiating team. But he showed no hint of control over the target of the peace talks - the gangs that terrorise, brutalise and intimidate. This time, it was Mr Najib himself who raised the finger of caution.
Condition No 1 for peace talks: The other side must show it has control over the armed and dangerous young men committing the killing. "There must be a period of no violence" before talks, is how the Malaysian premier put it.
Condition No 2 to sit at the peace table: All separatists with skin in the game must attend. And not only that. There is to be no factional fighting. The table has two sides: the Thai government side and, for lack of a better term at this moment, "the other side". As Mr Najib put this condition: "All [insurgent] parties should be united."
Gen Aksara, who was Gen Prayut's choice but not everyone's idea of the best chief negotiator, talked to the media in Bangkok after the Malaysia trip. He stressed there is no time limit on even getting talks started, never mind coming to agreement. Only a miracle will even see talks this year, and, in a terse phrase, he said: “Do not expect anything at the moment.”
To put it one way, the military government is in no hurry at all to resume peace negotiations with the separatists of the deep South.
To put it another way, Gen Prayut and the army want to control every facet of possible peace talks, and have got the agreement of Malaysia's Mr Najib not to even approach the negotiating table until they are satisfied there is some sign of reaching a peace agreement that has been elusive for 38 years.