After their first official meeting in Bangkok on Friday, the Malaysian facilitator of southern Thai peace talks and Thailand’s negotiating team said they hoped to end the separatist conflict within two years but granting regional independence was off the table.
Malaysian peace broker Abdul Rahim Noor said he and his Thai counterpart expected to inject new life and give “new momentum” in negotiations with the southern rebels, but he revealed that his efforts to persuade hardcore leaders of the most powerful insurgent group to come to the table had been futile thus far.
Future talks would respect Thailand’s territorial integrity, said retired Army Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, who was appointed as the chief Thai negotiator by Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha in November.
“There is power decentralization and compliance with international norms, but that must not lead to separation,” Udomchai told a post-meeting news conference at a hotel where he and the rest of the Thai delegation met officially with Rahim Noor, who was appointed as the new facilitator by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad in August.
The negotiators said their two-hour meeting focused on establishing a framework for advancing the talks. These have made little progress since 2015, when Thailand’s military government opened Malaysia-brokered negotiations with MARA Patani, a panel representing several Deep South insurgent groups and factions in the peace process.
Hardcore leaders of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the most powerful of the rebel groups, have stayed away from the talks.
“This dialogue will be – there is a good English word – rejuvenated, [with] new vitality, new momentum ... we can find the solution,” Rahim Noor told the media.
When BenarNews asked him how long it could take to settle the decades-long conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region, Rahim Noor replied, “within two years or even earlier than that, provided that you have the correct solution.”
BRN: ‘A rather difficult group’
Since Udomchai and Rahim Noor took on their new responsibilities in the peace process, Thailand has tried through Rahim Noor to reach out to and persuade hardcore BRN leaders to join the talks.
When asked by a BenarNews reporter to comment on this, Rahim Noor said he was replying “very honestly” about his recent efforts to set up two meetings between BRN and Udomchai.
“We see that our experience tends to show that, I will say for lack of a better term, the hardcore group, if we are really to understand them and try to accommodate them, it is a rather difficult group,” Rahim Noor told the reporters.
“I don’t mind telling you that, twice, we had arranged a meeting between the leaders of the hardcore group to meet in Malaysia with Gen. Udomchai but, at the 11th hour, they just ran away – [and] cannot be traced,” he said. “That shows how difficult it is to handle this violent group.”
This issue came up during Friday’s discussions with Udomchai, the Malaysian broker said.
“We have told the Thai side just now that, if we are to wait until such [a] time when the hardcore group joins the whole group of rebels, Muslim rebels in the south, it will take [a] very long time, [a] very long time.”
Meanwhile on Friday, the BRN marked the 15th anniversary of the day in January 2004 when the conflict in the Deep South reignited, by posting a defiant video on Facebook.
A spokesman for BRN said his group was willing to keep fighting.
“Dear people of Malay Patani, if we are still strong, it is not wrong for us to continue until we win. If the peace effort by Siam (Thailand) is true, we can make peace. But if the peace effort is only to trick us, then we will fight,” BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Khalib said in the video.
“We, BRN, are willing to let the people of Malay Patani living a happy and victorious life even when our own is under threat. BRN will fight with all our might. Do not be Siam’s tool, do not support Siam, Insyallah (with God’s grace) we will win! Keep Fighting! Independence!”
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 long dormant period.
On New Year’s Eve, Thai army chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong visited the Deep South after a week of attacks that included shootings and bombings that killed a 59-year-old woman and injured eight others. The violence continued as two men were shot and killed Thursday in separate incidents in Narathiwat and Yala.