Thai chief peace negotiator wants more Deep South groups involved in talks

Mariyam Ahmad, Muzliza Mustafa and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Pattani, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur
Thai chief peace negotiator wants more Deep South groups involved in talks Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the Thai government’s Deep South peace talks chief negotiator speaks to reporters in Phuket, following a meeting with rebel leaders, Jan. 15, 2022.
Tuwaedaniya Meringing/AFP

With a new Malaysian facilitator in place to restart Deep South peace talks as early as next month, the Thai government’s top negotiator traveled on Wednesday to Pattani province where he admitted that the process could be more inclusive.

Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, who heads the Thai panel in the negotiations, told about 200 attendees at a Pattani forum that Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, 65, a retired Malaysian armed forces chief, would be the new broker of talks between Thailand and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) insurgents.

“But prior to that, the facilitator will travel to Bangkok,” Wanlop told the crowd.

BRN, the largest armed separatist group in Thailand’s southern border region adjacent to Malaysia, have held five rounds of face-to-face peace talks with Wanlop’s team since early 2020.

A sixth one was delayed because of the Malaysian general election in November. Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s new prime minister, has since appointed Zulkifli to replace Abdul Rahim Noor.

Wanlop told the forum he would like to see other groups, including MARA Patani, participate in the peace process.

“Regarding multiple organizations, I want all to participate – MARA or any other groups. The current problem is that they cannot unite. We try to talk with all the groups – we are pushing for that,” he said.

MARA Patani, an umbrella panel, had represented Deep South rebel organizations and factions, including the BRN, in negotiations with the Thai government. These lasted over several years until the BRN and the government began direct negotiations in 2020 that were also brokered by Malaysia. 

“It’s up to the political parties or local people’s wishes regarding several topics such as special-administered zone, power decentralization, gubernatorial election. All of these are to be discussed, debated for all parties’ acceptance,” Wanlop said.

Noting ongoing violence in the region, a forum attendee cast doubt about the effectiveness of the previous talks, including the last one in August 2022.

“I don’t know with whom the [Thai] peace dialogue team talked, but every time after a talk ended there came trouble. … People have doubts in the peace dialogue panel,” said Koleeyoh Halee, whose father was killed in the Krue Seh mosque massacre in 2004. Thai security forces have been blamed for killing 32 Muslim Malay separatists who were inside the mosque.

“Are we having false faith in these people? They could not control their combatants. The talks ended in bloodshed, clashes, daily shooting and more widows and orphans,” she said.

Wanlop conceded that events surrounding previous talks did not go as well as expected.

“We are not sure if the BRN peace talk panel had discussion with the military wing before coming to the table, or the delegation came to the table first and told the military wing later,” Wanlop said in reply to Koleeyoh. “If the military wing agreed, they ceased fire – if not, they continued shooting, conducting both talks and military actions.”

“For the Thai side, I’m affirming that all delegates are real, appointed by the prime minister. … But we don’t know about them,” he said.

“I want all to help prove if they are de facto delegates. They may be genuine to a certain level, but not the big figures.”

The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. Since the insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,344 people have been killed and 13,641 others injured in violence in the mainly Muslim Malay border region, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.

25 TH-MY-peace-inside.jpeg
Security officers inspect a bomb site after suspected insurgents targeted a local administrative office in Pattani, Thailand, June 20, 2022. [BenarNews]

BRN leaders and a source close to the peace talks confirmed the new facilitator’s expected visit to Thailand in early February.

Zulkifli did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment.

“The new facilitator is scheduled to be in Bangkok for three days starting Feb.1. He is expected to meet Deputy Prime minister Gen. Prawit Wongsuwan and the peace panel chief Wanlop,” said the source, who asked to not be named because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Since his appointment, Zulkifli has met with insurgent leaders, the source said.

Anas Abdulrahman, who leads the BRN delegation in the talks, confirmed this.

“Yes, we have met with him,” Anas told BenarNews.

Altaf Deviyati, director of the Iman Research Center, a Malaysian security and conflict research group, said Zulkifli would have much to do in facilitating the talks.

“He has a fine line to walk. On the one hand, existing talks and confidence building needs to be protected. Much has been invested already, but on the other hand, there is a need to make the talks more inclusive,” she told BenarNews.

“Personally, I believe eventually the talks must be inclusive for sustainable peace, but I think we are not there yet.”

There also are perceptions that Malaysia is not an honest broker in the talks, she said.

“The narrative seems to be that Malaysia cannot be trusted by either [side], which I think is very wrong. Each side seems to be accusing Malaysia of siding with the other,” Altaf said.

“This is why I think the new facilitator needs to show that Malaysia is a serious impartial facilitator whose interest is tied to the peace in the Deep South.”


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