The new Malaysian facilitator of peace negotiations in southern Thailand has reached out to insurgents not yet participating in those talks and launched a “dialogue process” with them, he told BenarNews on Thursday.
The revelation came as he confirmed that he would meet in Bangkok on Jan. 4 with the chief Thai negotiator in the talks, who was among those urging a hardline faction of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (the National Revolutionary Front or BRN) to come to the table in recent weeks.
Asked if he had contacted the BRN faction, Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator, replied “yes,” but went on to clarify that the conversations thus far were preliminary.
“The official term is ‘dialogue process.’ It is not a discussion, not a negotiation. It is a dialogue,” he said in a phone interview.
Rahim Noor also responded to a question about the purpose of next week’s scheduled meeting with new Thai delegation head Udomchai Thammasarorat, saying it would be “a step in the process, this ongoing process which will hopefully end with a peace treaty between both parties.”
Rahim Noor was appointed in August by the new government in Kuala Lumpur as the facilitator of Malaysia-brokered talks between Thailand’s military government and MARA Patani, a panel representing various insurgent groups in peace talks aimed at ending a decades-old conflict in the predominantly Muslim Thai Deep South.
BRN, the largest of the armed separatist groups, is represented at the table, but leaders of the hardline faction that is considered the most powerful one and which controls combatants in the field, have stayed away from the talks that began in 2015.
When asked whether MARA representatives would be at the upcoming meeting in the Thai capital, its spokesman, Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, told Benar it had “nothing to do with us.”
MARA’s dialogue with the Thai government was “still on hold,” he added, alluding to a hiatus dating to early 2018.
BenarNews approached both Rahim Noor and Abu Hafez on Thursday after obtaining a copy of an agenda listing the Jan. 4 meeting and other events related to the peace process, from the secretariat of the Thai negotiating team whose offices are located in the Deep South.
The Jan. 4 event would be an official introductory meeting between “the facilitator” of the talks and the Thai delegation, the agenda noted.
Other events listed on the agenda include a meeting at a military camp in Thailand’s southern border region on Jan. 8, followed the next day by a press conference by the Thai team at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani province, where local NGOs will be present.
The agenda did not say whether the Malaysian facilitator would be at those other events.
Then on Jan. 11, the Thai delegation is to hold a press conference related to the peace process at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) in Bangkok, according to the agenda.
Mahathir: ‘We have to seek the views of all the factions’
Rahim Noor and his Thai counterpart, who replaced Army Gen. Aksara Kerdpol as the head of Thailand’s delegation in October, first met on the sidelines of a state visit to Thailand by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who took power for a second time after leading the opposition to a stunning victory in a May general election.
During his visit two months ago, Mahathir pledged that his government would “help in whatever way possible to end this violence,” referring to the conflict in the Deep South.
And during a second visit to Thailand in mid-December, the Malaysian leader told a press conference at Rangsit University that it would take time to solve the problem.
“Finding a solution to the southern Thailand problem is not easy because the conflict involves many factions,” Mahathir said, according to Bernama, Malaysia’s state news service.
“We have to seek the views of all the factions besides knowing their interests.”
The prime minister’s latest comments came two weeks after Udomchai, the Thai chief negotiator, said he had asked Rahim Noor to invite the chairman of the BRN’s supreme council, Doonloh Wae-mano, (alias Abdullah Wan Mat Noor), to come to the table.
“We are reorganizing the peace-talk team. The approach is we want to talk with the ‘de facto’ representatives of all dissident groups and MARA Patani,” Udomchai told BenarNews at the time, using a term that refers to the southern rebel organizations.
The Malay-speaking 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 decades-old insurgency re-ignited 14 years ago.