Ex-Malaysian police chief Abdul Rahim Noor on Friday said he had accepted the new government’s invitation to serve as the next facilitator of Kuala Lumpur-brokered peace talks aimed at ending a separatist insurgency in southern Thailand.
The former police inspector-general and ex-head of the Malaysian police’s special branch will replace Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim who, under the government of former Prime Minister Najib Razak, served as facilitator of negotiations between Bangkok and rebels in the Thai Deep South since 2013.
“I am ready to play my role as a facilitator in the peace talk between the Deep South rebels and the Thai government,” Rahim said in an interview with BenarNews.
“When the government approached me, I accepted it,” he said, adding he received his appointment letter from the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Friday.
In Bangkok, Gen. Aksara Kerdpol, the head of the Thai military government’s negotiating team in peace talks with southern rebels confirmed that Rahim was appointed as Malaysia’s new facilitator for the negotiations.
“We are acknowledging that Tan Sri Abdul Rahim bin Mohd Noor, Malaysia’s former police chief and special branch police chief, becomes the facilitator in the Deep South peace-talk process in the place of Dato Seri Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, as the Malaysian side had informed us earlier. The Thai prime minister also knew that,” Aksara told BenarNews.
“It is a change on their side and it would not have negative effects because he is just a facilitator. ... He is a former special branch chief so he may know something more than others and there might be new groups that want to join the talks,” the chief Thai negotiator said.
Rahim’s appointment comes more than three months after Mahathir led the Pakatan Harapan opposition alliance in a stunning victory over Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition in Malaysia’s general election.
Questions arose after the May 9 election over whether Mahathir would keep Malaysia’s mediator role in the Deep South peace process alive.
When asked about this by a BenarNews reporter in late June, Mahathir said his government would carry on in the mediator’s role, but he left open the possibility that Zamzamin would be replaced.
Experienced in peace talks
Rahim, 75, is perhaps best remembered as the negotiator who was instrumental in getting the former Communist Party of Malaya to lay down their arms and sign a peace deal with the Malaysian government in 1989.
The Peace Agreement of Hat Yai – named after the city in southern Thailand along the border with Malaysia – came about through peace talks facilitated by the Thai government and ended the 21-year-old communist insurgency.
Rahim, who served as Malaysia’s fifth police chief from 1994 to 1999, is also known as the top policeman who, 20 years ago, punched Anwar Ibrahim, the sacked deputy prime minister in a notorious case dubbed as the “black eye incident.”
At the time, Mahathir was serving as prime minister. Many years later, former foes Mahathir and Anwar would reunite to lead the Pakatan alliance to victory against Barisan in the 2018 general election.
Rahim will take over as facilitator of the Thai peace talks, even though he took issue five months ago with comments made by Mahathir suggesting that the Malaysian police force under Rahim’s leadership had a hand in Mahathir’s decision to sack Anwar back in 1998.
On Friday, Rahim expressed confidence that he would be able to carry out the mandate given to him by Malaysia’s new government.
“I feel that my years of experience and connections I made when I was Malaysia’s special branch head and inspector-general of police will help in assisting both sides in these peace talks,” he told Benar.
Sources in the Malaysian government declined to comment on Rahim’s appointment. It was not immediately clear why the new administration chose to remove Zamzamin, who had brokered two sets of Thai peace talks since 2013.
The first were negotiations between the government of former Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and the rebel group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) that stalled in December 2013. Then, starting in 2015, Zamzamin facilitated talks between the Thai junta, which had overthrown Yingluck in a coup in May 2014, and MARA Patani, an umbrella body representing Deep South rebel groups.
The negotiations with MARA have failed to produce a limited ceasefire that is seen as critical to prospects for peace in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence there since the decades-old separatist insurgency flared up again in 2004.
‘The onus is on the Thais’
One analyst said Rahim knows the Thai authorities well, dating back to 30 years ago when he helped negotiate the surrender of the Communist Party of Malaya.
But Rahim will face deep-seated suspicion among Thais that groups in Malaysia actively support the insurgency in the Deep South, said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a Kuala Lumpur think-tank.
“And he’ll need to do more than what took place under the previous government, which focused too much of its efforts on facilitating talks involving one group, the MARA Patani,” Shahriman told BenarNews.
The analyst also cast doubt over the Thai military government’s commitment to negotiating with rebels to settle the southern insurgency.
“Ultimately, there will be no progress unless the Thai authorities are serious about addressing the insurgency in the country’s southern border provinces,” Shahriman said, adding that the low-level conflict too often was susceptible to being ignored by those in power in Bangkok.
“I really think the onus is on the Thais, here. Malaysia can facilitate [talks] but if the Thais are not willing to make any compromises – even contemplate some form of autonomy for the South – all efforts will come to naught,” he said.