New Malaysian mediator raises hopes for “more effective” peace talks between Thailand and separatists

New Malaysian mediator raises hopes for “more effective” peace talks between Thailand and separatists

Six years of negotiations have yet to bring peace between Thailand and separatists in the troubled southern provinces. However, a new mediator appointed by mediator Malaysia, who has neither a police nor a military background, has brought a glimmer of optimism.

Thai Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin will visit the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat in August with his Malaysian counterpart Anwar Ibrahim as part of a mission to promote economic development in the region, including helping to turn the region into new tourism destinations for the Kingdom.

Meanwhile, despite a ceasefire with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), deadly bomb attacks continue. The most recent attack on June 30 in front of a police station in Yala left one person dead and over a dozen others injured.

On July 5, Malaysia announced the appointment of former National Security Council (NSC) Director-General Mohd Rabin Basir as the new mediator in the Southern Thailand Peace Dialogue, replacing former army chief Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, who had been mediating the process since January 2023.

In a statement, current NSC chief Nushirwan Zainal Abidin expressed his hope that Mohd Rabin, who headed the NSC from 2019 to 2023, could play “a more effective and constructive role in accelerating” peace in the troubled border region with Malaysia.

His appointment is the third person to hold the mediator’s chair since 2018 and the first who, unlike his predecessors Zulkifli and before that former police chief Abdul Rahim Noor, does not have a military or police background.

A Facebook poster from the Malaysian National Security Council congratulating Mohd Rabin Basir on his appointment as director in 2019. Photo: Malaysian National Security Council

Abu Hafiz Al-Hakim of the rival group, the Islamic Liberation Front of Patani (BIPP), said Mohd Rabin’s performance as a mediator was yet to be seen, but it was a refreshing prospect after six years of a former security chief mediating the process.

“Because he is a former diplomat, he was able to offer a different approach and method than his predecessor, who was in the police and military,” Abu Hafiz told This Week in Asia.

He and the BIPP were already involved in an earlier peace process with Thailand, mediated by Malaysian diplomat Ahmad Zamzamin, before Bangkok decided to abandon the process in 2018 and start anew with BRN.

Both Bangkok and the Patani separatist groups insist on involving Malaysia as a mediator in their talks.

Sources with direct knowledge of the peace process echoed Abu Hafiz’s assessment, saying that the military-driven attitude of previous mediator Zulkifli Zainal Abidin had led to friction in the process.

“Everyone agrees that they can’t stand him,” the source told This Week in Asia.

According to people familiar with the matter, Abdul Rahim Noor’s tenure as mediator was of a similarly stressful nature.

Remains of destroyed vehicles at the scene of a car bomb explosion in front of a police residence in Bannang Sata district, Yala province, southern Thailand, on June 30. Photo: EPA-EFE

However, Thailand-based security analyst Don Pathan said Zulkifli had managed to gain the trust of the BRN leadership, “which is not easy given the complex political relationships between all the key players in this conflict.”

He added that nothing major will change with the appointment of the new mediator as both Thailand and BRN will endorse the framework for the Joint Comprehensive Plan for Peace, which was negotiated in a series of technical meetings, most recently on June 25.

“The difficult part comes later when they negotiate the details within the framework,” Pathan said.

The predominantly Malay and Muslim provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, as well as parts of Songkhla – collectively known as Patani – were incorporated into the Kingdom of Thailand in 1909 by a treaty with the United Kingdom. To this day, they resist Bangkok’s rule, claiming they are occupied territories and striving for independence.

The fighting intensified in 2004 after the Tak Bai incident, in which 85 people were killed – seven were shot dead by Thai police, while 78 others suffocated in trucks after being arrested on the way to an army camp.