Thailand and southern BRN rebels have held direct talks in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in years, officials said Tuesday, expressing confidence the meeting set the stage for negotiations to end a decades-long conflict that has killed thousands.
A delegation from Bangkok, headed by chief Thai negotiator Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, met with a team representing the Barisan Revolusi Nasional insurgents during talks on Monday facilitated by Malaysia, the two sides said.
“This meeting reaffirmed our endeavor and intention to seek peaceful solutions to the problems in the Southern Border Provinces of Thailand,” according to a statement issued by Thailand’s so-called Secretariat for Peace Dialogue.
“The meeting provided an opportunity for both sides to meet and get to know each other and also acknowledge a working framework which would help ensure the progress and continuity of the dialogue,” the Thai side added.
It was the first official bilateral meeting between Thailand and BRN’s military wing brokered by Malaysia since late 2013, when a previous effort at negotiating peace in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region appeared to go nowhere.
Monday’s meeting took place in the Malaysian capital as Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha visited the region known as the Deep South to promote economic development in the impoverished area.
“We hope that an improvement in people’s living standard can help reduce violence,” he said during his two-day trip.
Late last year, officials representing Thailand and the BRN held back-channel talks in Berlin that were organized by an international organization, but Malaysia was not consulted about the meeting ahead of time, an official on the Malaysian National Security Council told BenarNews in December.
At this week’s meeting, the BRN delegation was led by Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), a former teacher at a religious school in southern Thailand’s Yala province.
He told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday that the BRN and Thai delegations agreed to a set of commitments on which they could build mutual confidence.
“On Feb. 28, 2013, there was a political agreement between BRN and the Thai government. However, due to several issues, which saw the need for confidence building between both sides to be carried out step-by-step, we continued the process through the back channel,” he told the press conference organized by Malaysia but where only a handful of news organizations were allowed in.
“The result, thank God, is the formation of this [negotiation] today,” Anas told reporters.
The Thai military has blamed BRN for carrying on with deadly attacks across the region.
“We reached a mutual agreement to resolve the unending conflict that, until now, has caused thousands of deaths and casualties,” said Abdul Aziz Jabal, a BRN delegate.
“Therefore, both the BRN and Royal Thai government have a mutual understanding to resolve the conflict in Patani through political means, which is through the peace process,” he added, using a separatist name for the Deep South.
According to Anas, both the Thai and BRN negotiators agreed during the first round of talks on Monday that they needed to strengthen their commitment to terms of reference, which they had framed before, and that Malaysia would continue to facilitate the process.
MARA’s place in new talks unclear
Last month, Wanlop, Thailand’s new negotiator, said he was determined to involve all rebel groups and factions in efforts to bring about peace to the Deep South.
Since 2015, Thailand has been involved in talks with MARA Patani, a panel representing southern insurgent organizations, but those negotiations achieved no breakthroughs to date and BRN’s military wing stayed away from them.
On Tuesday, it was unclear whether BRN had included MARA Patani in the new talks with Thailand, excluded it from direct negotiations with Bangkok, or whether the Thai government was pursuing a second track of negotiations with MARA.
According to a highly placed Malaysian government source who has direct knowledge of the peace process, Monday’s dialogue was only an introductory meeting and BRN had informed other participants that they would bring in the other groups to join future negotiations. The source requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, the spokesman for MARA Patani, said it was too early to predict if BRN would pursue negotiations with Thailand separate from MARA or involve other members of the panel in the talks.
“If they did not want others to be involved, and Malaysia along with Thailand also agreed on that, then MARA can just sit back and relax,” he told BenarNews.
Crisis Group: Peace talks need ‘reboot’
BRN panelists spoke to reporters in Kuala Lumpur the same day that the International Crisis Group (ICG), a Brussels-based NGO that specializes in research into conflict resolution, published a study about efforts to bring peace to the Thai Deep South.
The group’s report noted how Wanlop had called for direct talks with BRN, “which has rejected the existing dialogue.”
According to ICG, the dialogue process “needs a reboot” with BRN involved and prepared “to engage constructively.”
Bangkok, for its part, “should overcome its aversion to international mediation and cease equating decentralization with partition,” the group said as it urged Thailand and Malaysia “to incorporate external mediation.”
More than 7,000 people have been killed in roadside bombings, shootings and other violence across the Deep South – which consists of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province – since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.
Malaysia, which shares a border with the Deep South, remains a crucial facilitator, ICG said, but Kuala Lumpur “is too enmeshed in the conflict for the parties to see it as impartial.”
Araya Poejar in Bangkok and Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.