19 May 2024

The Malaysian facilitator for the southern peace dialogue has expressed confidence that there is a strong chance for peace in the trouble-plagued region, but cautioned that there cannot be a “winner-takes-all” solution to the conflict.

Speaking to Thai PBS World in an exclusive interview, Gen Zulkifli Zainal Abidin also urged all stake-holders to keep an open mind when pursuing the on-going peace process.

“I can say that more than 50% of the people I have talked to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel,” he said, as he was ending his four-day visit to southern Thailand this week.

His visit came less than two weeks after he facilitated peace talks between representatives of the Thai government and the BRN, one of the major secessionist groups hosted by Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur, during which the two sides agreed on a roadmap to end violence in southern Thailand.

Gen Zulkifli said he met with local Muslim and Buddhist communities, academics, non-governmental organisations and religious leaders in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla in order to build confidence in the peace process. The facilitator said he met earlier with representatives of all major separatist groups residing in Malaysia.

When asked whether he is convinced that both sides in the conflict are committed to working towards peace, he said “I can sense a positive gesture from every discussion and every outlook and behavior. It’s not about drama. I see it with my own eyes and I am confident that we will come to a conclusion one day.”

He said one positive result from the latest round of peace talks in Kuala Lumpur was an agreement by the BRN for other separatist groups to join future meetings. He said it is yet to be determined which groups will be invited.

The roadmap, known officially as the Joint Comprehensive Plan towards Peace (JCPP), sets a two-year time-frame, during which both sides will try to reach agreement in three areas: cessation of hostilities, public consultation and political solutions.

“The two-year time-frame is good, but it means everybody must have a big mind [sic] to ensure that you agree to disagree on certain issues. We have to practice the win-win situation and not winner-takes-all,” he said.

Gen Zulkifli said all parties concerned must be sincere in their approaches. “It has to come from the heart, from the outlook that, at the end of the day, we want peace. We have to take some and we have to give some,” he said.

An initial test of what was agreed upon at the negotiating table will be the holy month of Ramadan, when a cessation of hostilities is supposed to take hold as a testament of sincerity on both sides.

Gen Zulkifli said the onus is on both the Thai government and the BRN to manage the situation.

“I think both sides know the sensitivity of the issue. Both must try to accommodate each other. There must be tolerance in any action. That’s why I said they must have a big mind [sic] to do this. I can only facilitate and I don’t have the power to mediate in that,” he said.

Though representatives of the BRN have demonstrated a commitment to peace, there has always been a question as to how much control the BRN leadership has on the armed elements on the ground. Gen Zulkifli admitted that lessons learned from the peace process in Mindanao of the Philippines and Aceh in Indonesia only reaffirmed the challenge.

“They tell us that it’s not easy to control people on the ground. Sometimes there are communication breakdowns, sometimes misunderstandings and sometimes emotions overrule instructions,” he said.

The Malaysian facilitator said, however, that he has urged the BRN to make its rank-and-file understand the roadmap that has been agreed upon and pointed out the need for the Thai side to reciprocate, in order to help reduce the level of violence.

Gen Zulkifli is a former commander of the Malaysian armed forces and was appointed as the new facilitator by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim early this year. He said his initial and most challenging task was to shore up people’s confidence in Malaysia’s role as an honest broker in the peace dialogue.

“As the facilitator, I was instructed by the prime minister to make the peace process inclusive and transparent and without any hidden agenda. He told me to do everything possible to make progress because, at the end of the day, Thailand is our closest neighbour with a common history and culture. We need to work together to improve the situation and achieve lasting peace,” he said.

By Thepchai Yong