Updated at 6:50 p.m. ET on 2019-12-02
Hardcore insurgents from Thailand’s Deep South who had refused to participate in recent efforts at peace talks have held back-channel discussions with Thai officials and may come to the negotiating table, Malaysian government sources and a rebel spokesman told BenarNews.
An official with Malaysia’s government, which has been brokering peace talks since 2015, said officials last week learned about a meeting in Berlin between Thai government negotiators and representatives of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the largest and most powerful of separatist rebel groups in Thailand’s southern border region.
“We have received information on this meeting from the Thai side” last week, Mohd Fadli Jamaludin, a member of Malaysia’s National Security Council, told BenarNews on Monday.
He said the meeting in the German capital followed a series of conversations between the two groups brokered by a third party, an international organization, but Malaysia was not consulted about the Berlin meeting ahead of time.
“The Malaysian government facilitator was previously not informed of the existence of this back channel,” Mohd Fadli, who also serves on a joint working group for the peace dialogue process in southern Thailand, said.
Kuala Lumpur “did not recognize the involvement” of another international party “in the official peace dialogue process,” he added.
The Thai government has officially been involved since August 2015 in talks with MARA Patani, a panel that represents various southern rebel groups and factions in the negotiations, including BRN’s political wing. Nearly 7,000 people have been killed in violence across the mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking Deep South since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.
As he introduced himself and his team on Friday, Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, Thailand’s new chief negotiator in the talks with MARA, told a news conference in Bangkok that he foresaw a change in dialogue partners in the peace process.
Dormant for months, the official talks facilitated by neighboring Malaysia have yielded no breakthroughs and have been dogged by allegations that hardcore BRN leaders, who command guerrillas in the field, were not participating and did not support the peace effort.
On Monday, BenarNews contacted Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian facilitator of the talks, to ask him for confirmation that BRN’s military wing would now be participating in the negotiations after staying out of them for more than four years.
“Looks like it,” Rahim Noor replied by telephone. “I know and have been informed. It’s a good move.”
Earlier this month, two Malaysian sources told BenarNews that the rebel group’s military wing had agreed to participate in talks with Wanlop and Rahim Noor. Wanlop’s appointment as leader of Thai government delegation was announced in September while Rahim Noor was appointed in August 2018.
“[W]hen there was no commitment from the military faction and only the political wing was involved, then the violence and what was discussed on the table were not synchronized,” said a Malaysian government official close to the matter, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on it.
“However, this time, it will be led by what we can call the hardcore BRN, which is the military wing that has power on the ground and is responsible for incidents that happen,” the source told BenarNews.
The source said BRN leaders might be joining the negotiations because they preferred Wanlop and Rahim Noor to their predecessors.
“Maybe it is the credibility of Rahim Noor as a former inspector general of police and his approach during his time as Malaysia’s top cop,” the official said.
“And secondly, the appointment of Gen. Wanlop as the chief negotiator – the freedom fighters were relieved when they heard that Udomchai was removed,” the official said. He was referring to retired army Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, who led the talks beginning in October 2018 but resigned earlier this year after being named to the senate.
MARA Patani, meanwhile, has been without a chief negotiator following the resignation of Sukree Hari in May. Rahim Noor said he did not know who would take over for Sukree in that role.
“Yes, we know about Sukree but I don’t know who will replace him. It’s part of their internal politics,” he told BenarNews. “I am sure they have chosen someone to replace him.”
Despite the lack of an announced leader, MARA Patani will be involved in negotiations and would welcome a stronger BRN presence, a spokesman for the panel said.
“MARA Patani has already been at the dialogue table and we expect the mainstream BRN to join us,” spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told BenarNews. “What our merger will look like is under discussion and once finalized we will announce it to all.”
Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur and Nani Yusof in Washington contributed to this report.