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International relations

Thailand angers Malaysia in push for peace in troubled South

Sources say Bangkok marginalized Kuala Lumpur in back-channel talks with rebels

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, left, flagged his interest in Thailand's ethnic conflict soon after returning to office in 2018. (Nikkei Montage/ Reuters) 

BANGKOK -- Thailand's peace offensive to end a 16-year ethnic conflict in three southern provinces has soured diplomatic ties with Malaysia, which borders the area.

Sources told the Nikkei Asian Review that Bangkok's security establishment has been scrambling to contain further diplomatic fallout before the next round of negotiations in Kuala Lumpur in early March. "The Thais are trying to pacify the Malaysians by offering to share some credit for the recent breakthrough in the peace process," said a Bangkok insider with intimate knowledge of the talks.

This frosty relations between the two Southeast Asian neighbors followed groundbreaking back-channel talks in Berlin late last year between the Thai security establishment and Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest rebel group in the region.

The Malaysians, even though recognized by the Thais as enablers of the talks, were excluded from negotiations. "The Malaysians were incensed when they found out," said an Asian diplomat.

The Malaysians were also not privy to a seven-page draft of the agreement that had been tabled during the Berlin talks, which were arranged by a European humanitarian organization, according to Bangkok political insiders. "The [tentative agreement] between BRN and the Thai National Security Council raises questions about the future role for Malaysia in the peace process going forward," said one insider, who has seen the text.

The success of the talks was revealed on Jan. 20, when a new round of formal negotiations resumed in Kuala Lumpur after a lengthy hiatus. It marked the first time the Thai state admitted it was in official discussions with BRN, and it formally recognized the rebel group as its dialogue partner.

Identifying BRN marked a shift from the hawkish stance of Bangkok's security establishment since the on-again, off-again negotiations started in February 2013. Bangkok's default view had been not to name who it was negotiating with among the motley mix of rebels.

The conciliatory tone set by Gen. Wanlop Rugasanaoh, Thailand's new chief negotiator, came despite strong opposition from hawks within the Thai military and foreign ministry, both of which have been opposed to "giving BRN official recognition by the Thai state," said a Bangkok security insider.

"Gen. Wanlop is prepared to set a new tone in the talks and that has led to the major achievement of getting the BRN to the table," said the source.

Thai security forces patrol the railway in the troubled southern province of Yala on March 27, 2013, a day before the first round of formal peace talks between the Thai government and BRN.   © Reuters

Hard-liners in Bangkok have stood their ground by framing the conflict as an internal matter. They fear that formal recognition of the Malay-Muslim rebels will attract foreign intervention and "internationalize" the conflict.

A European observer at the talks was permitted "only because he was not a government representative, but a former member of an international humanitarian organization," according to an insider.

Analysts welcomed the breakthrough for a peace deal in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, home to Malay-Muslims, the largest minority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand. The current cycle of violence, which erupted in 2004, has left over 7,000 dead and more than 10,000 injured. It is rooted in ethnic and cultural marginalization, according to Malay-Muslims, who say they have been subjugated by the Thai state since the last century.

But Malaysia's role in the talks since 2013, when Bangkok asked Kuala Lumpur to facilitate the first phase of the dialogue, has remained politically sensitive. The porous border between the two countries has enabled rebels from BRN and smaller Malay-Muslim insurgent groups to cross with ease. Furthermore, most of the insurgency leaders live in Malaysia.

"Malaysia is not only a broker or a facilitator of the peace process, but also a stakeholder," said Don Pathan, a Thai security analyst. "To resolve this conflict, you need endorsements from all three parties: the Thai state, BRN and Malaysia."

This has not been lost on Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who flagged his interest in Thailand's ethnic conflict soon after returning to office following his country's 2018 general elections.

Mahathir appointed Abdul Rahim Noor, the former Malaysian police chief who struck a peace deal with the Communist Party of Malaya in 1989, as the country's new peace envoy. Mahathir also assured his Thai counterpart, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, that his government would not back rebel calls for a separate state.

Yet, this has not prevented Thai negotiators from trying other channels to end the protracted conflict, resulting in closed-door talks with no Malaysian representation in Berlin, Geneva, Hanoi, Singapore and Surabaya and other locations -- all of which have been supported by Western governments, according to diplomatic sources.

The next round of talks in Kuala Lumpur is expected to offer clues about what the behind-the-scenes negotiations yielded. "The BRN representatives at the talks seem to have received the backing of the [BRN] military wing," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a Thai scholar specializing in the southern insurgency, adding that the BRN's views this time are meant to be inclusive.

"It remains to be seen how far the Thai government is willing to go with regards to political concessions," she said. "Certainly, separation is off the table."

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