19 May 2024

Thailand and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the well-known Malay Muslim separatist group, will begin their long-awaited third round of peace talks on January 11th in Kuala Lumpur. This time it is hoped that there will be sufficient mutual trust to move beyond the confidence-building stage, towards some concrete action plans.

To stop the ongoing violence and abuse, both sides need to put forward plans on which they can agree. Judging from the situation on the ground, the dialogue process, even though it has been sluggish, has already saved hundreds of lives and prevented many more casualties.

For the past two years, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, dialogue among key players, in particular, the Thai team and the BRN Malay-Muslim insurgents, has stalled. Without direct communication, as before, violence has become an alternative means to send indirect messages to opposing parties. If this trend continues, the prospect for a durable peace will again become elusive.

Therefore, this week’s meeting is pivotal for the building of further mutual trust and agreeing on steps towards something concrete. The 7-member Thai dialogue team is headed by Gen Wanlop Ragsanaoh, while the BRN 7-member team is led by Anas Abdulrahman. The facilitator is the veteran Tan Sri Rahim Mohd Noor, the former Malaysian police chief. All participants understand and know one another very well. They can make progress.

Over the past years, several ideas have been discussed and disputed, including those related to the lifting of checkpoints, law enforcement, administration and safety guarantees for returnees, among others. According to an intelligence source, nearly one-third of the over 900 BRN members have crossed over to the Thai side during the past two years, due to COVID-19 and the lack of employment. Some of these BRN members want guarantees from the Thai authorities that they will not face arrest.

The Thai side would like to establish broader safety zones, which would require cooperation from BRN members in the field. For years, the Thai security apparatus has tried to identify the key figures within the movement, who have the overall command of the insurgents, in efforts to reduce violence. That helps explain why the Thais have been eager to talk to anyone in or associated with the movement.

There could be surprises at the Kuala Lumpur meeting if the facilitator encourages both sides to reach a safety zone agreement, with assurances from Malaysia. So far, the new government, under Prime Minister , has sent positive signals to the Thai side concerning the situation in Southern Thailand. The Malaysian leader Ismail Sabri Yaakob, who was scheduled to visit Thailand at the end of December, had to postpone his trip twice due to the severe flooding in central Malaysia.

Familiar issues related to decentralisation, the administration of Islamic affairs and more, which require some heavy lifting, remain on the table.  They are still valid and will be discussed further, when mutual confidence improves and the timing is right. The fact that the BRN has agreed to hold talks with the Thai team means there still is an opportunity to make peace and more progress to end violence in the deep south once and for all.

According to the Deep South Watch database, about 7,300 people have been killed since 2004. After the first peace talks in 2013, the number of casualties declined. There have, however, been intermittent spikes in those years, when dialogue between the government and Malay Muslim insurgents was absent.

To improve the government’s coordination efforts in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha signed order No. 19/2564 in September, to realign all concerned agencies down there and have them work together in a holistic manner. Subsequently, a special coordinating team was set up to perform the so-called “command and control” of all activities related to development and strategic matters in the three provinces. In addition, a special committee of representatives involved in solving the southern problem has also been set up to help with the ongoing efforts to bring peace to Southern Thailand.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk