Malaysian ex-military chief appointed new facilitator for Deep South peace talks

Muzliza Mustafa, Iman Muttaqin Yusof, Nisha David and Mariyam Ahmad
Kuala Lumpur and Pattani, Thailand
Malaysian ex-military chief appointed new facilitator for Deep South peace talks Muslim men carry a banner saying “stop violence” during an anti-violence rally attended by Muslim and Buddhist residents in Thailand's southern Narathiwat province, Jan. 22, 2019.
[Madaree Tohlala/AFP]

Malaysia’s government announced Tuesday it was appointing a former military chief as the new facilitator of peace talks for the Thai Deep South, a move that the southern rebels’ representative and analysts welcomed saying they hoped it would step up the pace of negotiations.

As BenarNews first reported last week before the appointment was made official, Malaysia picked Zulkifli Zainal Abidin to replace Abdul Rahim Noor, a former national police chief who was appointed to the role of peace broker in 2018.

In a statement announcing the appointment, Mohd. Zuki Ali, chief secretary to the Malaysian government, thanked Rahim Noor for his service, adding that Zulkifli’s appointment began on Jan. 1.

“It is hoped that Zulkifli will play an effective role in expediting efforts towards creating peace and security in southern Thailand,” he said.

The statement didn’t give a reason for replacing Rahim Noor, although there is a history of bad blood between him and Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s new prime minister. When he served as police chief in 1998, Rahim Noor notoriously gave Anwar a black eye by punching him in the face when he was in jail at the time.

Zulkifli, an expert in anti-insurgency operations, served in the Malaysian army for more than four decades before retiring in 2020. He began his military career in 1978 and was made the army chief in 2011. He served as military chief in 2018.

Zulkifli wasn’t immediately available for comment on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Rahim Noor said he had been informed about the new appointment.

“The government has made a decision. This is a normal process,” Rahim Noor told BenarNews.

Talks between negotiators representing the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents in the largely Muslim and ethnic Malay southern border region began in early 2020. The two sides last met in August.

Since then, negotiations were informally on hold while Malaysia held a general election in November. 

‘This is a good thing’

Anas Abdulrahman, who heads the delegation representing BRN at the peace talks, said he was optimistic about the new facilitator.

“We hope there will be a significant improvement to the peace talk with the appointment of the new facilitator,” he told BenarNews.

In Thailand, Lt. Gen. Santi Sakuntanark, the army commander for the southern region, was also receptive to the news.

“It is good to change the facilitator so we can keep moving forward,” he told BenarNews.

The armed separatist movement in the Deep South began in the 1960s.  

The border region encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. Since the insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,344 people have been killed and 13,641 others injured in violence, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.

Regional conflict analysts said they believed it was time for something to change in the peace talks, because the negotiations so far had been frustratingly slow and fruitless.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri, the director of the Deep South Watch, said Zulkifli’s appointment may bring the change that was required to energize the talks.

“This is a good thing. We may get something new out of this change. The new person may have new methods or change the approach of the Malaysian government,” Srisompob told BenarNews.

“They may have appointed a former army official because he may work with the Thai military better.”

Another analyst, Fikry A. Rahman, of the Bait Al Amanah research institute in Malaysia, said Zulkifli appeared to be the right person for the job.

“We hope that he can bring new approaches in engaging with multiple stakeholders from Patani. It includes bringing other insurgent groups to come on board at the negotiation table and to exert more political-will by the Malaysian government in solving the conflict,” Fikry told BenarNews. 

“Patani” is the name that many ethnic Malays in Thailand’s southern border region use to refer to the Deep South.

“To be in a stalemate position is not an option especially after COVID that disturbed the process. Timing is key now and proper planning is paramount,” Fakri said.

It is essential to keep the negotiation process moving, said Altaf Deviyati, director of the Iman Research Center, a Malaysian security and conflict research group.

“The process needs to move to more concrete terms. The feeling of frustration is being felt by the common folks down south,” Altaf told BenarNews.

“I fear if it doesn’t move and only builds frustration, this can be bad in the long run and push peace even farther from reach.”

Some of that frustration is already evident. 

Kamaludde Sahoh, a villager in Yala province said his only concern was peace.

“I don’t know about the change and I don’t care. We just want peace. They can do anything as long as it doesn’t affect us. We have to make a living,” he told BenarNews.

“We already face so many difficulties. There has always been violence and the locals are really fed up with it.”


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