How Malaysia can help more with the Southern Thai conflict

Thai Rangers man a checkpoint in the Cha nea district in Thailand's restive southern province of Narathiwat in 2017. – AFP

THE conflict in Southern Thailand is more than 100 years old, the longest-running in the region, yet little is known about it. It is a direct result of the Anglo-Siam treaty of 1909 and the subsequent creation of the present-day border between Malaysia and Thailand.

Peace negotiations between Bangkok and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – the strongest among many insurgent groups fighting for an independent Patani state – have entered their fourth year with the latest talks expected to be held this month. Peace negotiations have actually been going on for almost two decades between numerous Thai administrations and different rebel groups but with little change. To date, more than 20,000 people have been injured and killed since 2004, the year when violence re-escalated after the Tak Bai massacre and Krue Se stand-off killing hundreds.

Southern neighbour Malaysia has been the facilitator for the peace dialogues since 2013, invited by then Thai prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra. At a glance, Malaysia’s proximity to both parties to the conflict should be a plus point but, unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case. Both sides, insurgents and government, are suspicious of Malaysia and question her impartiality.

Nevertheless, both Bangkok and the BRN agree that Malaysia is the most viable option for facilitator, and this is highly unlikely to change. Malaysia is an important trading partner to Thailand and many BRN members find sanctuary here. There is, however, real frustration towards the facilitator office for not being flexible or responsive enough to dynamics on the ground – something the new facilitator must address.

As a facilitator, apart from the importance of being impartial, Malaysia must also play a leadership role. While it is imperative that Malaysia respect the choice made by the parties involved over the format of the dialogue and its substance, Malaysia still needs to guide the dialogue by making sure it stays on track and ensuring both sides move forward positively

This can be difficult to do when Malaysia is left out of the loop when “backdoor” channels are used. These are supposed to help build trust and complement official dialogue sessions but. Unfortunately, these not-so-secret unofficial discussions held in different countries not only leaves Malaysia in the dark but further strengthens the narrative that Malaysia is not an honest broker but is rather the spoiler in the peace process. Rather than supporting the official dialogue these meetings compete with it instead.

The current peace dialogue is at a juncture at which it must move beyond confidence-building measure to more concrete matters. Tangible results are needed especially in finding common ground on three key issues: public consultations, violence reduction, and political solutions to the conflict.

The Ramadan peace initiative in April 2022 had given hope to the people in Southern Thailand that the peace dialogue was working, but that dividend has already waned. The rise in violence later in 2022 and the return of the Patani United Liberation Organisation attacks are worrying – their last known attack previously was in 2016.

This may be a sign of frustration with the peace process. Reportedly, many groups feel unrepresented and that BRN does not necessarily speak for the whole of the south. Other rebel groups want a seat at the table, and this will likely turn into a demand if negotiations fail to produce results. To date, though, BRN is still the group with the strongest public support in the South. This can easily be seen in the funerals held for fallen BRN combatants and the social media platforms supporting them.

Malaysia recently appointed a new head to the facilitator office, ex-military chief Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin and there is hope he will inject some badly needed fresh blood into the talks. He is an interesting choice. His background of field experience and military studies offers a combination of pragmatism and academia that may make him a more nuanced and strategic facilitator.

We hope he will also view Malaysia’s role more professionally. Hence, for a start, there are some immediate things he can do to help move the dialogue forward: first, strengthen facilitator’s office to be more responsive to the talks, particularly in the three key areas mentioned before; and second, increase the number of observers of the peace process beyond the current two.

Eventually, the talks must be more inclusive and representative of all stakeholders if there is to be a sustainable peace.

Altaf Deviyati is a co-founder and the managing director of Iman Research, a think tank studying society, religion and perception. The views expressed here are solely the writer’s own.

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