Thailand’s National Security Council chief said Thursday he would take over next month as head of the Thai negotiating team in peace talks with southern rebels, replacing his predecessor who was appointed only a year ago.
Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the outgoing NSC director-general, told reporters that Udomchai Thammasarorat had resigned as the top negotiator to assume his role as a senator.
“Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha has appointed me to be new the peace-talks delegation chief in place of Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat,” Wanlop said.
BenarNews could not immediately get a reaction from Udomchai, a former army general who led Bangkok’s delegation in Malaysia-brokered talks with separatist insurgent groups from the Thai Deep South, starting in October 2018.
A low-ranking insurgent operative in Pattani said the change in the leadership of the Thai negotiating team would have no impact on the peace process unless the rebel groups fulfilled their goal of “Merdeka,” a Malay word for independence.
“I personally think no matter who becomes the chief of peace talks, it won’t make any difference if we can’t achieve Merdeka,” the insurgent who identified himself as Fadueri told BenarNews.
He claimed he was a member of Barisan Nasional Revolusi (the National Revolutionary Front, or BRN), the largest among insurgent groups in Thailand’s mainly Malay-speaking and Muslim southern border region.
“The (Thai) government set up the peace-talks panel on a lark and played, so we also play our game,” he said.
NSC chief’s background
Wanlop, an ex-director of the Ministry of Defense’s Office of Policy and Planning, has extensive experience dealing with top-level security officials from the United States and other countries.
The Thai cabinet endorsed Wanlop’s nomination as secretary-general of the National Security Council in August 2017. During a cabinet meeting at the time, Prayuth described Wanlop as “well-grounded in security and defense.”
Wanlop served as an artillery platoon leader in the 3rd Army during the 1980s and 1990s. Years later, he became a policy planner under the Defense Ministry and also served as a mission coordinator for the U.N. Transitional Authority’s peacekeeping operation in Cambodia, officials said.
Thailand’s Deep South includes Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces, as well as four districts in Songkhla province. A separatist insurgency waged by the BRN and other armed groups has killed almost 7,000 people since it reignited in early 2004, according to rights groups that monitor the region.
Since 2015, Thailand under a military government led by Prayuth has engaged with MARA Patani, a panel of negotiators representing southern rebel groups and factions, in Kuala Lumpur facilitated talks aimed at ending the conflict. The talks have stalled and yielded no breakthrough.
The negotiations were dogged by allegations that hardcore BRN leaders commanding fighters in the field were not participating in the talks and did not support the effort.
In an interview with BenarNews in July this year, Sukree Hari, who headed a rebel delegation at peace talks with the Thai government from 2015 until May 2019, slammed the government over the negotiations.
“The Thai government is not sincere about resolving the conflict … The negotiations held thus far were a tactic for wasting Malay Patani people’s time,” Sukree said, referring to the southernmost provinces and the ethnic Malay Muslim majority who lives there.
Prayuth began his term as an elected prime minister this past June after a parliamentary majority picked him to lead the new government in the wake of a general election held in March – the first polls staged in Thailand’s since Prayuth, a former army chief of staff, led a military coup that toppled a civilian-led government in May 2014.