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Politics

Mahathir revives hopes for Thailand's troubled south

Malaysian leader to bring peace facilitator on two-day visit to Bangkok

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad begins a visit to Thailand later this week.   © AP

BANGKOK -- Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's visit to Thailand this week is raising hope that he can forge a path toward peace in three southern Thai provinces along the Malaysian border that have seen more than a decade's worth of bloody ethnic conflicts.

Mahathir begins a two-day visit to Bangkok on Wednesday. A Malaysian government source said the 93-year-old prime minister's agenda includes confirming that Malaysia will continue to facilitate peace talks between the Thai government and Malay-Muslim separatists.

Mahathir has signaled this intent. The delegation that will meet with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha includes Abdul Rahim Noor, Malaysia's newly selected peace facilitator and a former police chief.

"The prime minister's choice of the new peace facilitator so soon after his election victory in May suggests that he is placing a priority on Malaysia's role to bring peace to Thailand's south," the Malaysian government official said. "It should help to move things forward and give fresh life to the peace process."

Abdul Rahim replaces Zamzamin Hashim, who once served as Malaysia's spy chief. Former Prime Minister Najib Razak chose Zamzamin Hashim as the peace envoy for behind-the-scenes talks that began in February 2013 but have made little headway.

Seasoned observers of the conflict paint Mahathir's and Abdul Rahim's efforts as sanguine. In 2005, Mahathir launched a peace initiative that brought generals from the Thai security establishment and leaders of one of the oldest Malay-Muslim separatist groups to the resort island of Lankawi.

In 1989, Abdul Rahim succeeded in securing a peace deal with the Communist Party of Malaya, which for decades had posed a national security challenge to Malaysia. During his stint in the police ranks, Abdul Rahim also engaged with leaders of a previous generation of Malay-Muslim insurgents from the south of Thailand who had sought refuge in Malaysia.

Sensing change, Thailand's military regime has also named a new chief negotiator, Gen. Udomchai Thammasarorat, a military veteran who has had multiple deployments in the troubled region.

He is regarded by local Malay-Muslim leaders as open and accessible. Prayuth's coup-installed government assigned Udomchai, who had stepped down from active duty, to serve in a policy-making unit for the troubled region.

But analysts caution against high expectations. They do not expect a meaningful breakthrough until the peace dialogue includes the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest and best-armed rebel group, which has stayed away from the peace table.

The Thai government has also balked at a rebel suggestion to bring in international observers beyond the Malaysians who are playing the role of peace facilitator. Thailand fears that giving in to this request could lead to "internationalizing" the conflict.

"The crux of the matter is whether the Thai government is willing to allow further engagement of the international community as observers, apart from the Malaysian facilitator," said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, a Thai conflict resolution analyst. "The ball is in the Thai government's court."

Some Thai human rights groups are optimistic about what Mahathir can bring to the table. On the eve of his departure, they reached out to him with details of the conflict's toll. They informed him that over 220 civilians have been victims of extrajudicial killings since early 2004, when the current cycle of violence erupted.

Over the past 14 years, the conflict has affected the area's majority Malay Muslims and minority Buddhists, leaving 7,000 dead and more than 10,000 injured. Civilians make up a majority of the casualties and injured. The roots of the conflict go back decades and to ethnic discrimination imposed on the Muslim community.

The rest of Thailand is predominantly Buddhist.

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