Thailand’s new chief negotiator in the Kuala Lumpur-brokered talks with southern rebels said Friday he was “studying” the concept of power decentralization on advice from Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and had already held low-level talks with “all groups” in the peace process.
Promoted to the post late last year, retired army Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat has been on a public relations tour of sorts. He addressed reporters last week in the Thai capital alongside the new Malaysian facilitator of the talks, and then joined a forum this week with civil society leaders in the Thai Deep South.
On Friday, he held a news conference for 100 reporters, diplomats and activists at a foreign press club in Bangkok. Udomchai said he was considering establishing a special administrative zone and creating de-centralized rule in the Deep South as a solution for the decades-old separatist conflict in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region.
“A special administrative zone is something that we discussed among ourselves and compared with a policy that the Thai prime minister gave to us to address power decentralization,” Udomchai said during the news conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT).
“In reality, it is about how do we define a special zone or decentralized rule? There is a definition under the framework of the constitution,” Udomchai said.
When asked, Udomchai did not say whether he had succeeded in making contact with insurgent leaders and factions who, up until now, have refused to participate in talks between Thailand’s military government and MARA Patani, a panel representing insurgents groups. The talks with MARA began in 2015 but cooled early last year.
“In talks [so far], we talked to all groups on a one-on-one basis because each group may have a different way and thoughts,” Udomchai said in response to the question.
He said he was open to talks with all stakeholders.
“We talk in an unofficial manner so that they feel free and have time to clearly communicate for a precise understanding. Then official talks will be held,” he added.
But when asked whether this meant that the talks now included the BRN, the negotiator replied, “How do you call the violent dissidents? Generally they are called BRN, but I call it dissidents who use violence.”
When new negotiating teams for Thailand and Malaysia were announced in late in 2018, much was made about bringing all parties to the table to give the talks fresh impetus.
But on Jan. 4, Malaysian peace broker Rahim Noor told reporters in Bangkok that hardcore leaders of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest and most powerful of southern insurgent groups, did not show up at two meetings he had arranged between them and Udomchai in Malaysia.
‘We took his advice’
In Friday’s news conference, Udomchai said he was inspired to study the idea of decentralization of power because of advice from Mahathir, the 93-year-old leader of Malaysia who returned to power through a general election last May.
“When a well-wisher who is the prime minister of our neighboring country gives advice, no one would refuse. We took his advice and I’m studying it,” Udomchai said.
In an interview with Thailand’s Nation newspaper last month, Mahathir addressed the people of the Deep South by saying, “there should be an understanding that the southern part of Thailand is a part of Thailand. I don’t think many countries are willing to give up any territory.”
However, despite efforts to rekindle peace talks, violence has not stopped in the south.
Udomchai gave the press conference a day after gunmen in Pattani, one of the provinces of the Deep South, shot and killed four civil defense volunteers who were guarding a public school. On Friday, a 62-year-old imam of a mosque in Narathiwat, a neighboring province, was killed in a roadside shooting, according to police who had not identified a motive for the attack. The latest attack brought to seven the number of people killed in attacks in the Deep South since the start of 2019.
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.
Matahari Ismail in Narathiwat, Thailand, contributed to this report.