By Iskandar Zulkarnain and Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Change may be coming to slow-moving and thus far fruitless peace talks in Thailand’s Deep South, observers say, as Malaysia’s new prime minister is keenly interested in the conflict and no friend of the current facilitator, who once punched him in the eye.
Talks between negotiators representing Thailand’s government and insurgents in the mostly Muslim southern border region were informally on hold while Malaysia – which for years has brokered the talks – held an election in November. The two sides last conferred in August.
Malaysia’s new leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has already met with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. But the two governments have kept mum about the future direction of the peace talks, saying only that they are discussing matters, including whether peace broker Abdul Rahim Noor, a former national police chief, would be replaced.
The date of the next round of talks hasn’t yet been confirmed, although the Malaysian facilitator told BenarNews last week that it would take place in January. BenarNews tried to get information from Thai officials, but calls to the head and secretary of the Thai peace panel were not picked up.
Meanwhile, a senior member of Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the largest and most powerful insurgent group in the Thai Deep South – said recently that it would be open to autonomy instead of independence, if that is what people in the region want.
The BRN man gave a rare, on-camera interview to BenarNews in August on condition that his identity be concealed and his voice altered.
“The ultimate goal is independence. …. To achieve the goal, the Patani people’s support is a key factor,” said the insurgent, who asked to be identified as “Mustakim.”
“However, if the people see during the struggle that there are better options than independence, such as what occurred in Aceh or Mindanao, [then] that could be their consensus.”
Rebel groups in Aceh, Indonesia, and Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, originally sought independence but settled for autonomy in return for peace.
Mustakim said the Deep South peace talks have left much to be desired.
“[T]he peace talk process does not live up to ideal standards, when compared to successful processes such as in other ASEAN countries like Indonesia’s Aceh [region],” he said.
“They had a detailed and tangible process leading to a peace agreement in a short time, not 10 or 20 years.”
BRN has been fighting to establish an independent state for Malay Muslims who form the majority of the population in Thailand’s southern border region. It was not clear if “Mustakim” was stating an official view or his own opinion, and whether BRN had authorized him to speak to reporters.
Anwar ‘can play a significant role’
Meanwhile, observers of regional conflict also noted the slow progress of the peace talks.
The Thai government and BRN representatives began Malaysia-brokered peace negotiations in early 2020, soon before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in the neighboring countries. These talks followed years of negotiations between the government and MARA Patani, an umbrella group that brought together Deep South insurgent groups, including BRN.
Mohd. Mizan Mohammad Aslam of the National Defense University of Malaysia said peace talks had not changed anything on the ground because, in his view, the conflict actually escalated after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Malaysia needs to revamp the whole negotiation process to reach a workable solution, and that includes getting someone new to replace the facilitator Abdul Rahim Noor, he said.
“The [Malaysian] government has two choices: whether you want someone energetic, relatively young, and who has a will to finish the task or the job, or do you want someone who is very experienced with wisdom to tackle the issue?” he told BenarNews.
Mohd Mizan believes Anwar can play a prominent role.
“He is one of the very respected figures in Thailand. I know during his tenure as deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim helped a lot of Muslims, especially madrassas in southern Thailand. So with that, I believe he can play a significant role,” he said.
Another analyst, Altaf Deviyati, co-founder and director of IMAN Research, a Kuala Lumpur think-tank, said Malaysia had not been proactive in these past few years on the Deep South issue.
“Malaysia is [currently] functioning literally like a secretariat office. … [But] Anwar Ibrahim has shown over the years his interest in the situation in the Deep South and security in ASEAN in general,” she told BenarNews.
“I would think he will take a personal interest in the progress of the dialogue. …I would assume that the facilitator may [also] be replaced.”
Last week, Malaysian Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said the possibility of replacing Rahim Noor was among things discussed during a meeting with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit.
“When the time comes we will announce [any change] … I can say that the matter was also touched on during the meeting,” he told reporters in Putrajaya.
“[I]t was too specific and detailed with several mutual commitments that need to be discussed, but it is still too early for me to divulge the details on the matter for the moment.”
Rahim Noor was appointed facilitator for the southern Thai peace talks in September 2018 by then-Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Anwar’s People’s Justice Party, which was part of Mahathir’s coalition government, strongly objected to the appointment. Party members had not forgotten that Rahim Noor, as the police inspector-general, punched Anwar in prison in 1998 after Mahathir had sacked Anwar as deputy prime minister, in a notorious case dubbed as the “black eye incident.”
Two years later, Rahim Noor was sentenced to two months in prison for the assault. In 2005, the former police chief publicly apologized to Anwar in court.
BenarNews contacted Rahim Noor last week to seek comment but he declined to answer. Officials at Malaysia’s Ministry of Home Affairs as well as the PM’s Office did not respond to BenarNews questions about whether the facilitator would be replaced.
Don Pathan, a Thailand-based security analyst, declined to comment on the Anwar-Rahim Noor relationship, but said a new facilitator in the talks may move things along.
“About Rahim Noor, perhaps it’s time for him to step aside. He was Dr. Mahathir’s choice,” Pathan told BenarNews.
“PM Anwar is in charge now, and he appeared to be more hands-on, making a quick trip to Bangkok just days before the General Election to meet Deputy PM Prawit Wongsuwan,” Pathan said, referring to Anwar’s visit to the Thai capital on Sept. 22.
The armed separatist movement in the Deep South region against Buddhist-majority Thailand began in the 1960s.
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, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.