23 May 2024

It seems like the right thing to do – a visit by Malaysia’s newly appointed facilitator for the peace process between the Thai Government and the rebel Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) to the conflict affected area, Thailand’s predominantly Malay-speaking South, to meet with local residents to get a sense of what he is up against.

The visit will come five days after the February 21st and 22nd high level negotiation between the two sides. It will be Gen. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin’s first time chairing the meeting in a process that has been referred to as a “pool of crocodiles” by a senior BRN officer.

Numerous peace initiatives have come and gone over the past 18 years, when this wave of insurgency related violence surfaced in the far South, but none has significantly moved beyond confidence building measures.

Even with less than a week to go, some insiders are still saying this round of talks might not get off the ground, pointing to the BRN’s internal bickering over a various issues, from selecting the right person to represent the movement at the talks to the argument over which items should be removed or revised from the negotiation agenda.

Some in the BRN even suggested that the back channel, which is being facilitated by a foreign NGO on a separate track from the Malaysian one, should be ditched entirelybecause working on two separate tracks has not produced the desired outcome.

Malaysia has never been happy with Thailand’s back channel, but this is not to say that the BRN is doing Malaysia’s bidding. The BRN might have problems with Malaysia, but jumping ship is not in their best interests either. Moreover, the two tracks are in competition and at times have turned the BRN members against one another.

Thai officials said the back channel comes at the expense of the Thailand-Malaysia bilateral ties, which should not be held hostage by the conflict or conflict resolution for the far South.

Even without the internal bickering, Thailand and the BRN are still struggling to find common ground on the pending issues on the table, namely Public Consultation (PC), Cessation of Hostilities Agreement (COHA) and political solutions, whatever that means, to bring this conflict to an end.

COHA has been described by some BRN leaders as a form of surrender and they wonder why they would agree to anything like that, while PC, the meetings between BRN representatives and the constituency, will not take place in the Patani region, because the authorities are afraid that it would generate the kind of excitement that could undermined local “tranquility”, in the words of an Army officer.

Gen. Zulkifli’s visit to the Patani region could very well generate more excitement than Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s official trip to Bangkok on February 9th and 10th for a summit with his Thai counterpart, Gen. Prayut Chan-o-cha.

The excitement generated by Gen. Zulkifli’s visit may not, however, be the kind that the Thai security agencies are hoping for. Anwar’s trip to Bangkok was presented as something positive, a gesture of goodwill from the southern neighbour. Muslims who he visited at the central mosque in Bangkok were Thai Muslims, not Malay, and the two don’t share the same historical-cultural narrative, much less identity.

Patani Malay activists, on the other hand, are known for speaking their minds, especially when they have the home turf advantage. Such a scenario has the security community in the far South worried. To ensure that the locals don’t get too excited, or that the conservation will get too frank for Thailand’s taste, the Internal Security Operation Command-Region 4 will screen and approve all of Gen. Zulkifli’s meetings.

The fact that Gen. Zulkifli is not opposing this outright suggests that he is willing to go along to get along” but, in the case where Malaysia’s interest and international standing are at stake, like the challenges posed by the back channel that presented Malaysia as a peace spoiler, it remains to be seen what Gen. Zulkifli will do.

Should the back channel be ditched, the onus will rest squarely on Malaysia, the designated facilitator for the peace process.

While Anwar’s visit to Thailand was largely billed as a success, not all stakeholders in the conflict see it that way. Among them were the Patani rebels, who felt that his rejection of the use of violence to settle the southern conflict was a bit naïve. They said Anwar conveniently ignored the political aspect of the violence.

“What Malaysia, as the mediator, could and should do is stress the need to respect a greater degree of civility in this conflict,” said Artef Sohko, the president of The Patani, a political action group which advocates for rights to selfdetermination of the people in the far South.

“The rest is up to Thailand as to what kind of concessions, if any, the Government is willing to make for the sake of peace in Patani,” Artef said.

By Don Pathan

Don Pathan is a Thailand-based security analyst and a former reporter with various media outlets and publications in the region.