By Hadi Azmi and Mariyam Ahmad
Malaysia next month will host the first face-to-face talks in nearly two years between Thailand and southern BRN rebels, sources from both sides said Thursday about in-person negotiations that were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The high-level talks brokered by Malaysia are expected to resume after a surge in clashes in late 2021 between Thai government forces and suspected rebels from Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the most powerful separatist group in Thailand’s majority-Muslim Deep South.
“We will resume in January if all goes well,” a source on the Malaysian side familiar with the peace negotiations, but who requested anonymity, told BenarNews.
“It will be a face-to-face discussion in Kuala Lumpur,” said the source who was not authorized to speak to the media.
Thai officials and BRN representatives last met virtually in February 2021, and the last face-to-face discussions – two rounds of them – took place in Kuala Lumpur in March 2020, around the time of the first full-blown onset of the coronavirus pandemic in Malaysia.
Gen. Wanlop Rugsanao, the chief Thai negotiator, did not immediately reply on Thursday to calls from BenarNews seeking comment.
The provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala – as well as four districts of Songkhla province –make up Thailand’s Deep South, a predominantly Muslim and Malay region on the border with Malaysia.
A leader of an umbrella group of 32 civil society organizations in the Deep South, however, said Thailand and the BRN would likely meet in the Malaysian capital in the coming weeks.
“As far as we heard from insiders, there will be a meeting of Thailand’s peace talk panel and the BRN in Kuala Lumpur, likely on Jan. 11,” Ruckchart Suwan told BenarNews by phone on Thursday, but declined to name his sources.
Meanwhile, the commander of Thai army’s 4th Region, which covers the Deep South, and officials with ISOC-4, the regional operations command, are involved at a “working level and technical level” to discuss a possible peaceful solution to the conflict with the private sector and in-country insurgents, ISOC officials told BenarNews without going into detail.
More than 7,000 people have been killed in the southern border region since the BRN and other armed separatist groups renewed their decades-old insurgency against Buddhist-majority Thailand 17 years ago.
Increase in attacks since September
Ruckchart, who is based in Yala, went to parliament on Thursday to join an opposition MP in proposing that a House committee be set up to “to follow up on the progress of the existing peace talks.”
A “big budget was spent on many talks and it is necessary to have a committee to monitor the process,” Ruckchart said.
The Thai legislature may include the proposal for consideration during the next session in early 2022, opposition lawmaker Kamolsak Leewamoh said in parliament.
A month after the last in-person discussions between Thai official and BRN representatives, the rebel group declared a unilateral ceasefire in April 2020 to allow Thai health workers to combat the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the ceasefire – which was never formally declared over – a few sporadic attacks, which were blamed on the insurgents, took place earlier this year.
This past September, a noticeable uptick in violence began after a message linked to the BRN and posted on Facebook urged combatants to “resume self-defense operations” because, it alleged, security forces were conducting “summary executions despite COVID difficulties.”
Later that month, three government personnel and a suspected insurgent were killed during a shootout in Narathiwat, government officials said.
In October, military personnel said they flushed out insurgents who were holed up for 17 days in a swamp in Narathiwat. Four government security personnel and six suspected rebels were killed during the operation, officials said.
Since then and after BRN announced its support for Songhkla residents protesting an industrial project in Chana district, four bomb attacks have hit the Thai Deep South.
The last attack, on Dec. 13, targeted a passenger train in Pattani, injuring three. There were no casualties in the three earlier attacks.