Malaysia and Thailand have agreed to expand the scope of bilateral cooperation to contain an insurgency along their shared border after changing peace negotiators, and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad promised Wednesday to help solve the conflict as he started a visit to Bangkok.
The 93-year-old Mahathir met with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha as he began his first state visit to Thailand since taking office again as premier five months ago.
“Now, you have the problem in the south and we are pledged to help in whatever way possible to end this violence,” Malaysian Prime Mahathir Mohamad told a joint press conference at Government House.
Since 2013, Malaysia has facilitated different sets of peace talks between Thailand and insurgents waging a separatist war in the Thai Deep South.
In recent weeks, Thailand and Malaysia have replaced their chief representatives at the talks and MARA Patani, an umbrella group negotiating on behalf of various rebel groups and factions said it had added groups on its side and rebranded itself as MARA Patani Plus. However, a spokesman for MARA declined to name the new groups.
“We have no problems between Thailand and Malaysia. In fact, we have the history of strong cooperation when Malaysia was facing the problem of terrorism before,” said Mahathir, whose Pakatan Harapan alliance defeated the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition in a general election on May 9.
“Thailand helped in many ways to put an end to the kind of activity and we are very grateful to the Thai government and Thai people,” he said, referring to a communist insurgency that raged along Malaysia’s border with Thailand decades ago.
Prayuth, 64, reaffirmed that talks aimed at settling the separatist conflict would go on with Malaysia in a role as peace broker.
“I share the view that it is in Thailand’s and Malaysia’s best interest, and it is indeed, of the region that the situation in the southern border provinces must be resolved,” Prayuth said. “It shall be carried out, however, within the framework of Thailand’s Constitution.”
The talks between the junta and MARA started in mid-2015. They followed another set of talks between the rebel group known as the National Revolutionary Front (BRN) and the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Those previous talks stalled in December 2013 and Yingluck’s government was toppled in a military coup led by Prayuth, the then-army chief, in May 2014.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Prayuth said the neighboring countries would expand their scope of cooperation including on economic development and efforts to counter cross-border terrorism, extremism and transnational crime.
“As we are about to begin a new chapter of Thailand-Malaysia relations, I propose that both sides elevate our economic cooperation to the level of an ‘Enhanced Strategic Economic Partnership.’”
“In this regard, both countries will jointly push forward cooperation projects that have been pending, quite a number of them, placing particular emphasis on border area development, connectivity, trade, investment and tourism between both sides,” Prayuth said without detailing any of the projects.
More violence in the south
On the eve of Mahathir’s visit, police said suspected insurgents launched a grenade attack at a tire shop in Yala, a province in Deep South. No one was injured.
Reacting to that attack, Zachary Abuza, a BenarNews columnist and expert on the Thai Deep South noted in a tweet that it was the first bombing carried out in the region since Sept. 9.
“On the eve of the Malaysia-Thai summit, it’s almost as if the BRN wants to send a signal,” Abuza said Wednesday in a message on Twitter.
And on Wednesday, a 58-year-old chief of Talubo, a village cluster in Pattani province, was shot in the chest and leg and was in serious but safe condition, police said, adding that a 52-year-old woman, who was struck in the leg by a stray bullet, was in safe condition.
Meanwhile in Songkhla province on Wednesday, about 30 activists with a group calling itself Deep South Peaceful Thais rallied at the Malaysian consular office to lodge a letter of complaint with the consulate-general, urging the nation to stop supporting insurgents in exile.
Many insurgents from the Deep South are believed to be sheltering just across the border in northern Malaysia.
The group was calling on the Malaysian government “to arrest criminals, all militants, the leaders or the supporters, who committed crimes in Thailand,” said a leader of the group who requested anonymity.
“After finishing attacks, they fled to and hid in Malaysia – the base for terrorizing Thai people,” he said.
He stood with a group holding signs in Thai and English stating “Malaysia, please don’t offer the shelter to Thai criminals.”
Meanwhile, Deep South analysts cautioned that officials needed to take positive steps to achieve peace.
“To make the peace process meaningful to people in Thailand’s Deep South, Malaysia should send a clear message to BRN separatist insurgents that they must immediately stop attacking civilians in their armed struggle against the Thai state,” Sunai Phasuk, a senior Thai researcher told BenarNews. “In this light, Malaysia should no longer harbor insurgents responsible serious human rights abuses.”
The BRN, the largest and most heavily armed of rebel groups in the south, controls virtually all of the combatants in the region and has criticized the peace process between MARA Patani and Thailand’s military government, saying it wants to negotiate directly with Bangkok.
“On the other hand, Malaysia should be candid with Bangkok that a peace process requires trust and confidence from the ethnic Malay Muslim population, which will never take place as long as Thai security forces use extrajudicial tactics and operate with impunity,” Sunai said.
The decades-old insurgency in the predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South – which encompasses Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces, as well as four districts of Songkhla – has resulted in nearly 7,000 deaths since it re-ignited in 2004.
Mariyam Ahmad in Pattani, Thailand, contributed to this report.