The Malaysian facilitator of the peace process to end a long-running insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South has expressed optimism that talks between the Thai government and Muslim rebels could resume in two weeks.
Abdul Rahim Noor said during his first visit to the Deep South since taking over as facilitator in August 2018 that he was awaiting “commitment” from the Thai government, MARA Patani, a panel that represents some armed groups, and other rebel factions.
“If there are no obstacles, the peace dialogue will be held in two more weeks in Penang, Malaysia,’’ Bernama, the Malaysian state news agency, quoted him as saying while he visited Pattani province, a hotbed of the insurgency.
“As the facilitator, we want to know their commitment (Thai government, Majlis Syura Patani [MARA Patani] and the other armed groups) in a discussion which is to be held soon,” he said.
On Friday, Rahim Noor wrapped up his visit to the Deep South, a mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking region that borders Malaysia. He led a five-member delegation from Kuala Lumpur in four days of meetings with Thai military officials, politicians, academics, as well as religious and civil society leaders.
“It is a good signal and sincere commitment of the facilitators in order to create peace for the people in Deep South – the thing we believe all sides wish to happen,” said Lt. Gen. Pornsak Poolsawat, the Thai army chief in the region.
Pornsak met with the Malaysian team at his office in Pattani province on Wednesday to discuss how to move ahead with the peace process. Pornsak is also a member of the Thai delegation in the peace talks.
The Malaysian delegates “asked about materials from Malaysia used to make weapons, the connection between the insurgents and the civil society organizations, and Western funds for insurgents, if any,” an official who attended the meeting, but asked to remain anonymous, told BenarNews.
He did not elaborate.
The Malaysian delegation also met with leaders of the Islamic Committee of Pattani. The clerical body is part of a network of provincial Islamic committees that were established under Thai law to advise the Thai government on religious issues affecting Thailand’s Muslim minority and to manage Islamic matters at the local level.
The same anonymous official attended the meeting between the Malaysians and the Islamic Committee of Pattani.
“Tan Sri Abdul Rahim asked if Islamic committees have any measure to handle insurgents in the case they are pushed back from Malaysia to the Deep South. The chairman and company could not respond,” the source told Benar.
Meanwhile, in a separate interview with the news outlet Thai PBS, Rahim Noor expressed his hope that all of the concerned parties in the separatist conflict “will commit to continuing with the talks,” saying he was confident that a new change of government in Thailand would not disrupt the peace process.
“[I] might be wrong, but I think there is no change in the Thai government’s decision to talk for peace,” Rahim Noor told Thai PBS.
The talks between MARA Patani and Thailand’s then-military government began four years ago but have led to no breakthroughs and have been stalled since February, when MARA announced that it was suspending its participation in the negotiations till after Thailand’s general election on March 24.
On Tuesday, Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the junta leader and former army chief who seized power in a May 2014 coup, officially began his first term as an elected prime minister.
MARA Patani includes representatives of the main groups waging a separatist insurgency. Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the largest and most powerful of the rebel groups is represented on the panel, but hardcore leaders of BRN have refused to join MARA in the talks.
When asked to comment on the prospect of the next session of peace talks taking place in Penang in two weeks, MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told BenarNews, “so far, we have not been officially notified.”
About 7,000 people have been killed in violence in the far southern region since the insurgency reignited 15 years ago, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank. The Malay-speaking region borders Malaysia and encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces as well as four districts in Songkhla province.