The new Thai and Malaysian chief negotiators in talks aimed at resolving an insurgency in southern Thailand said they agreed to meet all involved groups and hear their demands as they begin working together to revive the peace process.
Udomchai Thammasarorat, a former Thai army general, and Abdul Rahim Noor, a former Malaysian national police chief, met for the first time in Bangkok this week after their governments appointed them as their new top representatives in the Malaysia-brokered peace talks.
“From what I heard from Tan Sri (Abdul Rahim), all troubles are not hard to resolve. Thailand’s approach is we talk to all dissident groups who have differences with the Thai government. We are open to all groups,” Udomchai said on Thursday, using a Thai term synonymous with rebel groups.
He did not specify whether that would include hardcore elements of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN) – the largest and most heavily armed rebel group waging a separatist war in the Thai Deep South – in the current peace talks.
Udomchai’s comments were recorded in a video of a press briefing at a five-star hotel in Bangkok that followed his discussions with Abdul Rahim.
The pair met in Bangkok over two days and on the sidelines of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s first state visit to Thailand since his Pakatan Harapan alliance was elected in May. They said this signaled a fresh start in a peace process.
“To some extent, it is a new era in terms of direction and the push to quicken the peace process, which has been going on for six years,” said Abdul Rahim, who was appointed as the Malaysian facilitator in August, according to state-run news service Bernama.
“There is now a ‘new era’ and better momentum for achieving peace in southern Thailand and calls for the process to be quickened,” the former police inspector-general told reporters in Bangkok.
Abdul Rahim said that, apart from the Thai sides, he intended to communicate with both moderate and hardcore insurgent groups, according Bernama’s report, which was published Friday.
He has already talked with both types of rebel organizations during his three first months as facilitator, the article noted.
“I am personally and definitely confident that, given the correct momentum, peace in southern Thailand will be achieved sooner rather than later,” the new Malaysian peace broker said.
“All parties must have the political will to find solutions suitable for southern Thailand,” Abdul Rahim added.
Udomchai, the former army chief in a regional military command that covers the Deep South, said “we’ve invested a lot” in peace talks over the past several years.
“I told Tan Sri that the approach won’t be different from 30 years ago when he dealt with [communists], Malaysia was a negotiating party,” the Thai negotiator said, adding that his Malaysian counterpart’s new role as a peace broker was a reversal of roles for him.
Udomchai was alluding to a previous long-running Malaysian communist insurgency along the Thai-Malaysia border that Abdul Rahim helped settle decades ago when he served as his nation’s negotiator in that conflict.
The BRN factor
Days ahead of Mahathir’s visit to Bangkok and his meeting with Thai counterpart Prayuth Chan-o-cha, the BRN warned that the talks would succeed only if the Thais negotiated directly with it.
The group previously criticized negotiations between Thailand’s military government and MARA Patani – an umbrella group that claims to negotiate on behalf of all the southern rebel groups and include BRN representatives on its panel.
“We have to make it known to them today, between the two PMs, they have to recognize that we are important,” BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Khalid told BBC News’s Thai service on Oct. 22.
“If both sides are not interested or dogmatic to do the same thing, I can say that there is no meaning whatsoever,” he said.
MARA recently announced its expansion from five to eight groups, and rebranded itself as MARA Patani Plus. However, spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, who could not be reached for comment on Friday, earlier declined to identify the new groups.
The talks between the junta and MARA started in mid-2015, but so far have failed to produce a limited ceasefire – or so-called safety zone – seen as a linchpin to taking the peace process beyond the negotiations table.
The MARA talks followed another set of Malaysia-brokered talks directly between BRN and the government of then-Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
Those talks began in February 2013 but went nowhere in December of that year after the Thai government rejected five demands presented in a YouTube video by BRN negotiator and chief Hassan Bin Toyib.
One demand was that Thailand grant the Deep South sovereignty and recognize the “Patani Malay Nation,” which was unacceptable to Bangkok.
In May 2014, Yingluck’s government was toppled in a military coup led by Prayuth, the then-army chief.
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.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an expert on the conflict in Thailand’s southern border region, said the talks could not gain traction unless the Thai government includes BRN’s leadership in the negotiations.
“The BRN is ready to come to the table should Bangkok allow international observers. If it accepts this, the peace talks could proceed in a more fruitful and meaningful way,” Rungrawee told BenarNews.
“Whether Mahathir wishes or could persuade Thailand to accept such pre-conditions, it is up to him.”
After landing in Bangkok on Wednesday, the 93-year-old Malaysian prime minister pledged that his government would “help in whatever way possible to end this violence.”