Thailand’s government appears determined to sideline negotiators who have represented separatist groups in Thai Deep South peace talks since 2015, the director of a think-tank based in the troubled border region told BenarNews.
Meanwhile members of MARA Patani, a panel of rebel factions that has engaged in the Malaysia-brokered talks for the past five years, said they would not participate in or had not yet been invited to direct negotiations announced last month between Bangkok and BRN, the most powerful of the southern insurgent groups.
“It’s clear that the government intends to downgrade MARA Patani, judging from Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the peace talks chief, who said that the Thai delegation wants to talk to the most influential group, who has clear roles on the ground, first, before it would talk to other groups,” said Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, who directs the think-tank known as Deep South Watch.
Wanlop and Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh), a leader of the BRN, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Front), announced during a joint press conference in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 21 that the two sides were launching their first official direct talks in years, and which would also be facilitated by Malaysia.
Last week, Wanlop told a news conference in Bangkok that Thailand wanted to “have bilateral talks with the BRN,” adding, “we want to work with the most influential group first and other groups may join.”
BRN holds seats on the MARA panel but, according to experts, the umbrella body may not have control of BRN fighters in the field. That reality, they say, pushed Wanlop to pursue contact with the rebel group’s de facto military leaders through Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the peace process. Until the new talks were announced in January, hardcore BRN leaders had stayed away from the MARA-led negotiations with Thailand.
Srisompob described the new set of talks as a positive development in years-long efforts aimed at settling the conflict in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South. More than 7,000 people have been killed in violence across the region since the insurgency re-ignited in 2004.
But, Srisompob cautioned, “I don’t know how far it can go. We have to wait and see.”
“Most importantly, there must be internal agreements within each of the two sides,” the analyst told BenarNews. “There are some differences within the rebel groups, and they need to sort [these] out among themselves besides talking to the government.”
“On the government’s side, it must have internal talks to have a unified stance,” he added.
The next meeting with BRN would take place in early March, Wanlop told reporters in the Thai capital on Jan. 31.
According to Sukree Hari, one of three BRN members who sit on MARA Patani, the next round of direct talks between Thailand and BRN will happen on March 2, but no BRN representatives on MARA have been invited to participate.
“Only the BRN, led by Mr. Anas, will be attending and BRN [members of] MARA Patani will not be involved,” Sukree told BenarNews.
Kasturi Mahkota, the leader of the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO) rebel group, who also sits on MARA Patani, said he was hopeful that the panel would be represented in the new peace talks.
“Not sure yet,” he told BenarNews when he asked whether MARA would participate. “[W]e leave it to the BRN. If the BRN could arrange it, Insha’Allah, we will be together. All the management is in the hands of BRN.”
Kasturi said he expected that the new talks “will be an inclusive process,” indicating BRN had given assurances that “this round of peace talks would include all parties.”
Who is Anas?
At Friday’s news conference, Gen. Wanlop, Thailand’s national security chief who was appointed as the chief peace negotiator with southern rebels in September 2019, gave reporters his impressions about his introductory meeting with Anas in Kuala Lumpur.
“We are quite confident that he is the right BRN representative to talk to us,” Wanlop said.
Srisompob, the analyst, described Anas as being high up in BRN, foreign educated and a former teacher at a Muslim school in the Deep South.
“He has [played] a key role in the BRN for many years. The Thai government’s intelligence circle knows him well that he is a key person. As he came out to talk, it’s confident that he truly represents the BRN,” Srisompob said.
However a former BRN fighter living in Yala, one of the provinces in the conflict-torn southern border region, questioned whether Anas truly was a top leader of the rebel group or would be the proper person to lead it in the new talks.
Jeh Ku, the ex-rebel, even suggested that Anas might be too close to the Thai government.
“Ustaz Hipni is no stranger to the Thai government. He has had close contact with the Thai government. The government simply wants a new face to come to the table, and there he comes,” he told BenarNews, referring to Anas by his alias.
Efforts by BenarNews to contact Anas for this report failed.
“The BRN operatives on the ground are waiting to see what the Thai government will do, while they have the only goal, Merdeka, and it never changes,” Jeh Ku said, using the Malay word for independence.
Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.