Malaysia-brokered talks aimed at ending a separatist conflict in the Thai Deep South hit a snag after Thailand’s new peace negotiator did not show up for an introductory meeting with his rebel counterparts in Kuala Lumpur at the weekend, prompting them to call for his removal.
Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor told BenarNews that Udomchai Thammasarorat’s “strange behavior” shocked him, while the chief Thai negotiator claimed he was never meant to attend the meeting, which he described as at the technical-level only.
Abdul Rahim, however, said that delegates from both sides had arrived in Malaysia’s capital on Saturday for an introductory dialogue meeting between the Thai team led by Udomchai and MARA Patani, a panel representing rebel groups and that is led by Sukree Haree. In recent months, Malaysia’s new government and the Thai government have launched efforts to revamp talks that were launched in 2015.
“On Saturday night, Udomchai told the Malaysian [officials] that he would only meet the separatists’ panel head, Sukree, despite everyone being present for the dialogue,” Abdul Rahim told Benar on Monday. Udomchai returned to Thailand on Sunday without taking part in talks.
“Udomchai also told Malaysia that the people from his team could meet with the separatists on Sukree’s panel. This request was deemed strange by the separatists and to me, it was a strange behavior on the part of Udomchai. I was shocked,” the Malaysian facilitator said.
On Sunday, Udomchai defended his actions. He said his side was ready to talk, but the Kuala Lumpur trip was meant for a meeting with Abdul Rahim only and not with any specific group.
“Regarding MARA Patani, both sides were scheduled to meet at a technical level. Our side was led by Maj. Gen. Kriangkrai Srisak, the secretary-general of the peace delegation,” Udomchai told BenarNews. “But the facilitator’s team informed us that MARA Patani wanted to meet us as a full delegation and everyone was there, whereas the full team was not scheduled to meet.”
Udomchai said he was willing to hold a smaller meeting.
“To keep the relationship, MARA Patani peace talk chief Sukree Haree was allowed to meet one-on-one with me first, but MARA Patani did not accept that and resorted to issuing a statement,” he said. “Formal talks must get through the technical level, to fix topics so that we don’t waste time and we may be able to agree on something that we can start right away.”
MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim brushed off Udomchai’s statement.
“All were just his excuses,” he told BenarNews on Monday.
Following the cancellation of the Kuala Lumpur meeting, Sukree Haree issued a video statement in which he announced that MARA had decided to suspend the peace talks until after the Thai general election on March 24. The group noted that Udomchai wanted to meet with the MARA delegation’s leader only.
“MARA Patani sees the attitude of refusal to confront the dialogue team as unacceptable and (we) suspect a hidden agenda when he only wanted to meet me,” Sukree said, adding that his team would propose that the Thai government replace Udomchai with a person “with more credibility.”
Abdul Rahim said it was up to the two sides to determine when they would meet, and that his role was one of a facilitator. Udomchai’s move to cancel the meeting could have come from a higher government official, the Malaysian peace broker noted.
“Udomchai told the Malaysian team he took that stand because Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha wanted him to,” Abdul Rahim said.
He also discounted comments that Udomchai had planned to meet with him only and none of the separatists.
“If Udomchai was supposed to meet me only, why bring along the delegation for just one night in Kuala Lumpur,” Abdul Rahim told BenarNews.
The Thai delegation’s decision was calculated to delay the negotiations, said Shahriman Lockman, a senior analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, a Kuala Lumpur-based think tank.
“And it could only have been done with the instructions of Udomchai’s political masters. Any number of reasons could be behind it, including the forthcoming general elections,” Shahriman told BenarNews.
“In any case, Malaysia should send a clear signal to Thailand that it would offer to continue to facilitate these talks only if the Thais are truly serious about them and will not waste our time in the future.”
MARA Patani includes representatives from National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest and most powerful of southern insurgent groups, but its hardcore leaders have stayed away from talks between the Thai military government and MARA.
The Deep South borders Malaysia and encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces as well as four districts in Songkhla province. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the region since the insurgency flared up again in early 2004 after a dormant period.