Malaysian facilitator: BRN agrees to other Thai Deep South groups in talks

Muzliza Mustafa and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysian facilitator: BRN agrees to other Thai Deep South groups in talks Malaysian facilitator Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, (center), Thailand's chief negotiator General Wanlop Rugsanaoh (left) and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional representative Anas Abdulrahman address a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 22 , 2023.
[S. Mahfuz/BenarNews]

The main Thai Deep South separatist organization BRN has agreed to other groups joining peace talks with the Thai government, the Malaysian negotiator told BenarNews on Wednesday after the latest two-day round of negotiations held in Kuala Lumpur.

Analysts noted the new Malaysian facilitator for the talks, former military chief Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, achieved another breakthrough when he managed the rare feat of a joint press conference with negotiators representing the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group.

Zulkifli said he hoped other groups from the Malay-majority Deep South would be present at the next round of negotiations in March, which would mark the first time they participate in peace talks since 2018.

“They have agreed in principle to invite others because they want to be inclusive too, but we need to send formal invitations to the others to make it happen,” Zulkifli told BenarNews in an exclusive interview.

This was the first round of talks attended by Zulkifli since he took over as facilitator this year, replacing Abdul Rahim Noor, although the former Malaysian military chief visited Bangkok earlier this month to introduce himself to the Thai government team.

After the two days of talks, the Peace Dialogue Panel for the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand, headed by Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, and the BRN delegation, headed by Anas Abdulrahman, agreed to move forward the peace dialogue process under what they termed a “Joint Comprehensive Plan toward Peace.”

This plan, though, would have a timeframe – 2023 to 2024 – and would address issues dealing with reduction of violence, and public consultation that leads to political solutions, a Thai statement said.

Specific details would be worked out between March and May during technical meetings, “with an aim to present such [a] draft for consideration and endorsement” in June, the statement said.

When asked whether he believed the separatist conflict would end in two years, Zulkifli said he did.

“I am confident based on my two friends here,” he said at the press conference.

BRN has been fighting since January 2004 to establish an independent state for Malay Muslims who form the majority of the population in the southern border region. More than 7,300 people have been killed and 13,500 others injured in violence across the region since then, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.

‘Not easy for me’

Regional conflict analysts said this was a good start, but added details needed to be worked out quickly. They also said the joint press conference was a good sign.

“Considering the fact that the two sides still can’t find common ground on many things, this gesture should be welcomed,” Don Pathan, a Thai security analyst, told BenarNews.

The talks’ outcome “showed progress” said Rukchart Suwan of the Yala, Thailand-based Buddhists Network for Peace group.

“There is a timeframe shown concerning the Joint Comprehensive Plan toward Peace,” Rukchart told BenarNews.

For Fikry A. Rahman of the Bait Al Amanah research institute in Malaysia, the plan’s inclusion of a roadmap is crucial.

“Having a roadmap will have added value to the progress for peace. But it is important to have a solid outcome soonest,” he told BenarNews.

Zulkifli said arriving at the joint plan had not been easy, but it had been clear that there was a commitment toward peace on both sides.

“It was not easy for me to get both sides to agree on things. Drafting one word could take us an hour or so … the delicacy of the matter. We had to take many breaks in between to make sure that discussion went through and we achieved the result that we needed,” he told BenarNews.

“Prime Minister [Anwar Ibrahim] previously said that the trust deficit must be overcome. Now, in a way we have overcome it. We spoke our mind, we shared our thoughts and showed that we are sincere.”

On his first official visit to Thailand as prime minister earlier this month, Anwar said Malaysia was unequivocally against violence as a means to resolve the insurgency. 

Many observers have pinned their hopes on a solution to the long running conflict in the Thai Deep South on Anwar because of his abiding interest in the issue and the region that shares a border with Malaysia.

The border region in the Thai Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. The armed separatist movement in this area began in the 1960s. 

Iman Muttaqin Yusof in Kuala Lumpur and Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, contributed to this report.


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