Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed has appointed a former police chief, Abdul Rahim Noor, to facilitate peace talks between the Thai Government and MARA Patani, an umbrella body made up of various separatist groups from Thailand’s Malay-speaking Deep South.
The straight talking, no-nonsense Abdul Rahim is well familiar with security challenges along the Thai-Malaysian border. His claim to fame was bringing down the now-defunct Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) through a peace agreement in 1989.
Dr. Mahathir is no stranger either to the separatist conflict in Thailand’s far south. Back in 2005, after he had stepped down from his first stint as PM, Mahathir enlisted the help of former Malaysian police chief Norian Mai and businessman Shazryl Eskay Abdullah to assist him in the so-called Langkawi peace process, a forum that brought top Thai security officials to the island for which the initiative was named.
Representatives from the Thai National Security Council and Armed Forces National Security Center met with aging exiled Patani Malay separatist leaders, who had no control over a new generation of militants on the ground.
But like other initiatives before and after, the Langkawi process did not generate traction and it wasn’t long before it disappeared from the conversation of stakeholders of this conflict.
The appointment of Abdul Rahim as the new facilitator was met with some resistance from inside Malaysia. Lawmaker Nurul Izzah, the daughter of Anwar Ibrahim, reminded the public of the infamous “black eye” given to her father when, as police chief, Abdul Rahim punched him in the face 20 years ago.
Conversations in the Deep South about Abdul Rahim often touched on the Thanam brothers, key separatist leaders from the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) who were deported to Thailand in early 1998 under his watch as police chief.
The move left a permanent scar between the Patani Malay separatist community and the government of Malaysia.
While the political context for the insurgency in Thailand’s far south hasn’t changed – as it’s still very much an ethno-nationalist struggle – a new generation of shadowy combatants under the leadership of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group is roaming the region nowadays, hitting the Thai security forces almost at will.
The extent of Abdul Rahim’s grasp of BRN’s motivation and ideology is still not clear. After all, back in the days when he was calling the shots along the border, it was PULO that dominated the theatre of violence. Today, it is BRN.
Thai military intelligence officials say they are not writing PULO off; the group’s network and support base in the region is growing steadily and could pose a problem for Thailand in the future.
But the main task right now, according to Thai officials, is to get the BRN leadership to join MARA Patani at the negotiations table.
Thai officials believe that the aging Abdul Rahim will apply pressure on the BRN leaders to get them to the table and that he and Dr. Mahathir have less than two years to do so before the prime minister’s job is handed to Anwar.
‘Can’t force peace’
How Abdul Rahim’s dealing with the BRN leaders will play out is anybody’s guess.
But senior sources in the BRN said the movement “was not ready to come face to face with the Thais, regardless of who the facilitating the process.”
Some Thai officials said that they understood why the BRN leaders had balked at entering the talks, saying Thailand’s approach was very “illiberal” as it was based on a simple assumption that the talks with MARA Patani would eventually attract the participation of the BRN.
“You can’t really force peace on people,” said one Thai security official who works on the far south. “BRN leaders have to feel confident enough to come to the table and that that they have to believe that they are getting something out of the talks.”
Besides the changes in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok is also contemplating its own changes.
There is ongoing talk about replacing Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, the head of the Thai military government’s negotiating team in the peace talks. The Thai army is looking for somebody who “can handle” Abdul Rahim.
One name that has been floated is Gen. Akanit Muensawas, a retired army officer who worked on border security in the 1980s, during the same time as Abdul Rahim.
Both men crossed paths during those years when they were tasked with ending the insurgency along the Thai-Malaysian border.
Abdul Rahim eventually brought an end to the CPM struggle while Akanit slowly disappeared from the scene in the far south as Patani Malay rebels put down their arms following a blanket amnesty program.
Some combatants returned to their respective villages. Others were granted asylum in northern European countries, Malaysia and Indonesia.
But a decade later, as Thaksin Shinawatra was about to become Thailand’s prime minister, a new generation of Patani Malay separatists surfaced on the scene, picking up where the previous generation of separatist militants had left off.
Thailand wrongly assumed that the absence of violence meant peace. The narrative about Patani being a historical Malay homeland invaded by the Siamese never went away.
Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security and development consultant for international organizations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.