11 July 2024

The Malaysian facilitator for the southern peace talks process said he is optimistic that there will be “concrete” development by the end of this year with a new round of dialogue expected to take place in February.

He said one of the challenges is how to get the representatives of the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), the main separatist group taking part in the peace dialogue, to agree to what he described as “the endgame.”

In an interview with Thai PBS World during his visit to Bangkok last week, Gen Zulkifli Zainal Abidin he hopes to have the next round of peace dialogue in Kuala Lumpur next month to set the agenda and objectives for the peace process which was stalled because of Thailand’s political changes following the general elections last May.

Gen Zulkifli said the aim of his visit was to hear from the new Thai government on its plan for the peace talks. During his visit, Gen Zulkifli met with Chatchai Bangchuad, the acting secretary general of the National Security Council who was appointed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin last November to head the Thai peace talks delegation.

Speaking after his meeting with Gen Zulkifli, Chatchai said a peaceful solution to the southern conflicts was possible by the end of this year or early next year.

While sharing Chatchai’s optimism, the Malaysian facilitator stopped short of committing himself to a specific timeframe.

“I am optimistic that something concrete will happen this year. However, whether we can sign a peace agreement or not depends on the appetite of both sides,” said Gen Zulkifli, adding that his next task is to talk to BRN to get their views on the next round of dialogue.

“One of the challenges is to explain to BRN what the endgame is,” he said, referring to what the peace dialogue should achieve.

Gen Zulkifli said the Thai side has its version of the endgame which he said the BRN has “to digest, discuss and make addition to what will be the end state of the dialogue.”

Following the last peace talks he facilitated in Kuala Lumpur last February, Gen Zulkifli visited southern Thailand and said most of the people he talked to believed that they were beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel.

“I am optimistic that the light is still there. And from my visit (to Bangkok) this week, I think the light is getting brighter,” he said.

He said the next round of talks will be confined to representatives of the Thai government and those of BRN even though both sides have agreed that the dialogue is open to other armed groups to participate.

Gen Zulkifli, a former commander of the Malaysian armed forces, was handpicked early last year by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to be Malaysia’s facilitator in the peace talks. He said the Malaysian leader is strongly committed to helping Thailand end the bloody conflicts in its south.

He said Prime Minister Anwar gave him a three-point instruction in facilitating the peace talks.

“Firstly, Malaysia doesn’t have any hidden agenda. Secondly, improve the trust deficit. And thirdly, do it transparently. And I have been adhering the instruction,” he said.

Gen Zulkifli admitted that one of his initial challenges was to shore up confidence in Malaysia’s role as the peace talks facilitator as critics, including Thai politicians, question whether Kuala Lumpur could be an honest broker. Some political elements in Malaysia are also alleged to have harboured armed insurgents fleeing from the Thai border areas.

Gen Zulkifli, however, said through his endeavor he is confident that Malaysia has been able to gain more confidence both from the Thai side and BRN.

“I could feel, see and hear that the confidence level toward Malaysia to facilitate the peace talks is going up on the Thai side,” he said, citing what he described as a cordial relationship between Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his Thai counterpart Srettha who recently met a new immigration checkpoint at Sadao District, Songkhla, during which they discussed joint efforts to develop areas on both sides of the border.

Besides meeting representatives of the Thai peace talks panel,  Gen Zulkifli said he also met Chaturon Chaisang, chairman of the House committee on conflicts in southern Thailand, who assured him that he had Thailand’s full trust.

“And with the (Thai) peace dialogue panel, we always have very robust, transparent discussions without holding punches. We put things on the table. There are things that we agree and things we do not agree,” he said.

During the interval after the peace talks were stalled, Gen Zulkifli said he continued to have communication with the BRN’s representatives who demonstrated their eagerness to resume the peace talks.

By Thepchai Yong