Updated at 6:12 p.m. ET on 2020-01-31
Thailand’s top southern peace negotiator said Friday that he anticipated a next round of direct talks in March with BRN, the most powerful of the armed separatist groups, but it remained unclear whether MARA Patani, a panel of insurgent organizations, would participate.
Earlier this month Thai delegates and representatives of the rebel group known as Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), held official bilateral talks in Kuala Lumpur for the first time in years.
“I think early March,” Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the chief Thai negotiator, told a news conference in Bangkok when asked when the next meeting would occur.
He said the change in dialogue partners in the Malaysia-brokered peace process had occurred because his side wanted to involve the southern border region’s largest rebel group in negotiations.
Since 2015, Bangkok has held formal talks with MARA Patani to end the decades-long insurgency in the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South, but the effort has failed to achieve any breakthroughs.
Late Friday, Malaysian facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor separately confirmed the upcoming meeting.
“Yes, it is true. There will be a meeting between the Thai government and the Deep South separatists in March in Kuala Lumpur,” he told BenarNews.
Wanlop said the first meeting allowed both sides to get acquainted and agree on a framework for talks, while the next session would focus on presenting terms and conditions for peace.
On Jan. 20, Wanlop led a seven-member delegation, including a justice ministry official and an intelligence agency official, in meeting with a BRN delegation headed by Anas Abdulrahman (also known as Hipni Mareh). Anas is a former teacher at a religious school in southern Yala province, who is wanted in Thailand over allegations that he trained insurgents.
“At the meeting, he introduced himself as the head of the BRN peace talk delegation this time, the same as Malaysia’s introduction of him. We are quite confident that he is the right BRN representative to talk to us,” Wanlop told reporters.
BRN holds seats on the MARA panel but, experts say, the umbrella body may not have control of hardcore BRN fighters in the field, prompting Thailand’s new top peace negotiator to pursue contact with the group’s de facto leaders through Rahim Noor.
“Initially, we want to have bilateral talks with the BRN. … When we work, we want to work with the most influential group first and other groups may join,” Wanlop said.
The two sides agreed that future talks for the first time would include peace process experts who would observe the negotiations, according to the Thai general.
“The experts you mentioned are to join on an individual basis, not in the name of organizations or any governmental agencies. They are peace experts so their roles in the process could add to the credibility,” Wanlop said, adding that the experts could change depending on the nature of specific discussions.
Umbrella group’s role
MARA Patani spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim said members of the umbrella group were involved in BRN as well. Thai officials have said that Awang Jabat, who has a lead role in MARA, Sukree Hari, who resigned as lead negotiator but remains on the panel, and Ahmad Chuwo are all from the BRN.
“At the moment, MARA Patani is coordinating with the BRN. It is not concluded yet,” Abu Hafez told BenarNews about the panel’s possible role in the upcoming meeting. “There are BRN members in MARA Patani. Let them talk.”
“There’s BRN members in MARA who met the others in BRN. So let them sort it out among themselves. When it’s done, then only the other groups can hold meetings with BRN,” he added.
With Malaysia agreeing in 2013 to serve as a facilitator, the Thai government and BRN negotiators began discussions but failed to reach an agreement that year.
Later, BRN and other rebel groups including the Patani United Liberation Organization (PULO), the Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP) and the Islamic Liberation Front of Patani (BIPP) began negotiating under the MARA Patani banner.
Prior to the unannounced talks earlier this month, BRN’s top leaders had stayed away from peace negotiations between the government and MARA Patani that stalled out last year.
The 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 insurgency flared up again in early 2004 after a dormant period.
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.