Thailand’s new chief negotiator said Tuesday he had asked the Malaysian facilitator of Deep South peace talks to invite the leader of the most powerful insurgent group to the table so that all the armed separatist organizations would be represented.
The Thai side is looking to include Doonloh Wae-mano, (alias Abdullah Wan Mat Noor), chairman of the supreme council of the National Revolutionary Front or BRN, in the Malaysia-brokered negotiations, Thai delegation head Udomchai Thammasarorat said.
“We are reorganizing the peace-talk team. The approach is we want to talk with the ‘de facto’ representatives of all dissident groups and MARA Patani,” Udomchai told BenarNews in a phone interview. “Dissident” is a term used by officials from the Thai military government to describe the southern rebels.
MARA Patani is an umbrella group that claims to negotiate on behalf of all the Deep South insurgent groups. It includes BRN representatives on its panel.
“Whether he himself would join or not, or accept the invitation or not, I cannot get involved," Udomchai added, referring to Doonloh. “Previously, he said MARA Patani was not his group. We try to talk with the group under his control, so we asked the facilitator to coordinate.”
Udomchai, a retired general who served as the Fourth Army regional commander overseeing the Deep South, recently replaced Aksara Kerdpol as Thailand’s chief peace negotiator in the south. Abdul Rahim Noor was tasked with the facilitator role for Malaysia by the new government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
“Every group must join so we talk it over once and for all,” Udomchai said. “We don’t force anyone to join but we requested the facilitator to help.”
Back in 2004, the year the longtime insurgency flared up again in Thailand’s southern border region, Doonloh was headmaster of the Jihad Witaya School in Pattani province. He was later accused of training militants who looted a fort in Cho I-rong, a district in neighboring Narathiwat province, that year.
Doonloh succeeded Spae-ing Baso, who died in January 2017, as head of BRN’s supreme council.
Last year, after bomb attacks at a Pattani super store injured about 80 people, then-Thai Army Chief Gen. Chalermchai Sitthisart publicly condemned Doonloh for extremist attacks.
Thai officials, who posted a 10 million baht (U.S. $302,000) bounty on Doonloh, reported that he fled to and was living in Malaysia.
‘We won’t propose a ceasefire’
Since a new set of talks began in mid-2015 between rebel groups and the Thai junta, negotiators have sought to establish a limited ceasefire in a specific area of the Deep South, to be dubbed a safety zone. Thai officials claimed last year that both sides had agreed to establish such a zone in Cho I-rong district.
But in his comments to BenarNews, Udomchai appeared to back away from this idea, although it was not clear whether he had taken if off the table completely.
“We won’t propose a ceasefire, it is useless because violence is their tool,” Udomchai said. “The more a ceasefire is discussed, the more violence occurs as they use it as a bargaining tool.”
“We will talk about how to co-develop the areas, making them trade zones, not war zones,” he said.
Days after the two sides had announced in February 2017 that they would work together to establish a safety zone, eight people were killed and four injured in attacks blamed on insurgents.
On Tuesday, after a monthly meeting of the nation’s defense council meeting, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan responded to reporters’ questions about Doonloh.
“He refused to come out three times already,” Prawit said. “I don’t know what doubts he has in his mind. I let the facilitator coordinate with him.”
In Malaysia, Abdul Rahim had little to say when asked about the status of the talks.
“I cannot comment on the issue at the moment,” he told BenarNews. “The Thai government requested that the peace process be put under wraps, so unless there’s a change in the policy, I cannot divulge it to the public.”
MARA Patani officials in Malaysia did not respond to requests for comment.
The predominantly Muslim and Malay-speaking 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 decades-old insurgency re-ignited 14 years ago.
Wilawan Watcharasakvet in Bangkok and Muzliza Mustafa in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.