Southern Thai peace achievable if there's political will, mutual trust

CONFLICT in the deep south of Thailand is certainly the longest unresolved armed conflict in Southeast Asia. The intricacy of the deep south's conflict itself encompasses multi-dimension, numerous actors, goes beyond generations and has inflicted heavy casualties on both sides.

Parties in the conflict went through many series of futile peace talks and negotiations. It seems like searching for peace in the deep south is elusive.

Malaysia has a moral responsibility to assist in the peace process. Apart from kinship, similar culture and religion, we share 658km of land borders with Thailand. The unrest and escalation of violence in the deep south will indirectly jeopardise Malaysia's geopolitical interests.

With Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as the prime minister, suddenly the deep south's peace process has once again garnered the people's attention. Many hope his leadership may revitalise the dormant peace process between Bangkok and the Thai-Malay nationalist groups.

Although his charisma undoubtedly will carry weight into building mutual trust in the peace process, let's not forget that Malaysia's role is limited to mediation and facilitation. We are not a party to the peace talks.

The perimeter of the conflict itself is within the border of Thailand. Therefore, Malaysia's over-stretching initiative might be misinterpreted as interference in Thailand's domestic affairs. Inevitably, this will steer the peace process into another futile effort.

Unlike the conflict between Thailand and Cambodia over the Preah Vihear temple, the conflict in the deep south of Thailand is between the state and non-state actors.

Firstly, it is important to identify a justifiable representative of the peace process. The state stays as it is, but who will represent the non-state actors?

There were various known groups with different ideologies and objectives partaking in the conflict. Prominent were Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), Patani United Liberation Organisation (PULO), Patani Islamic Mujahideen Movement (GMIP), and many more.

From these embryo organisations, emerged many splintered factions which have added to the complexity of the conflict. Although the most active one presently is BRN, nonetheless this does not mean other groups are willing to sit on the bench without active participation.

In the past, there was an initiative by the nationalist old guard to unite various groups and factions into an umbrella organisation. Eventually, the Bersatu coalition was formed to unite multiple nationalist groups into one platform in 1989.

In 2015, Majlis Syura Patani (Mara Patani), a new umbrella organisation, was formed consisting of six groups that were actively operating in the region. This poses quite a challenge for Malaysia in mediating dialogue between the nationalist groups and Bangkok.

In any peace process, mutual trust needs to be built among warring parties before the main agenda can be put on the table. Hence, Malaysia's biggest challenge as a mediator is to ensure that no party feels sidelined along the process. This is to avoid the deadlock that happened at the Langkawi peace talks in 2005, which must not be repeated.

Finally, political will is what was lacking in the previous peace talks. Some analysts argue that Thailand will ultimately refuse the nationalists demand for devolution of administrative power. By conceding to the demand for autonomy, it will provoke constitutional change at the central government level.

The lack of political will from Bangkok's side is a stumbling block that hinders the progress of the peace process. It is high time for parties to the peace process, with assistance from Malaysia, to explore any potential model of conflict resolution, which may be aptly applicable to the deep south's situation.

This time, I believe Malaysia will effectively facilitate the peace process in the deep south of Thailand. Although the sceptics might say searching for peace in the region is elusive, with strong political will and mutual trust, it will soon be realised.


* The writer is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Ethnic Studies, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia


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