The head of Thailand’s delegation involved in peace talks with southern separatist rebels told BenarNews on Friday that he hoped to resume the Malaysia-facilitated talks in July or August, if the coronavirus pandemic further subsides in the neighboring countries.
Direct negotiations between the Thai government and Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebels opened in Kuala Lumpur in January. They held a second meeting in the Malaysian capital in early March, shortly before a full-blown viral outbreak disrupted the talks and led to COVID-19 lockdowns in both countries.
“There would likely be a chance for meeting after COVID subsides. I’m eyeing a meeting in July or August. If the situation eases, there will likely be a new meeting then,” said Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh, who last year took on the role as Thailand’s chief negotiator to negotiate an end to the decades-long insurgency in the southern border region.
“During COVID we do not talk. It is inconvenient to travel,” he told BenarNews in a brief phone interview on Friday.
Lately, COVID-19 infections in both countries have tapered off. As of Friday, Malaysia and Thailand had recorded 8,535 and 3,146 cases, respectively, and fewer than 200 deaths from the disease between them. The vast majority of infected people in both countries have since recovered, according to statistics from Malaysian and Thai health authorities.
Since taking over as head of the Thai delegation, Wanlop, working with Abdul Rahim Noor, the Malaysian broker of the peace process, persuaded representatives of the military wing of BRN – the largest and most powerful of southern Thai insurgent groups – to open direct talks with Bangkok.
For the past several years until January, Malaysia had facilitated talks between the Thai side and MARA Patani, a panel representing BRN and other southern rebel groups and factions. But those talks yielded no breakthroughs and BRN’s military wing which, according to analysts, controls most of the rebel fighters in the field, had stayed away from the negotiations.
In early March, soon after a new government came to power in Malaysia, Wanlop and his team met for a second time with a BRN delegation led by Anas Abdulrahman (alias Hipni Mareh).
Wanlop said at the time that the new phase of direct peace talks with BRN would take time and require support from “all sectors.”
That was the last time the two sides met.
“The peace talks between the Thai government and BRN, with Malaysia as facilitator, will persist until an agreement is achieved to have complete peace in South[ern] Thailand,” Noor told BenarNews via a text message late Friday, when asked whether the talks might resume next month or in August, as Wanlop had indicated.
BRN’s ‘reduced activities a positive sign’
About a month after the Thai and BRN delegations last met, and as the pandemic gained intensity in both countries, the rebel group announced a unilateral ceasefire. BRN said it was suspending “all activities” on humanitarian grounds throughout the Deep South so health workers and agencies could help protect locals from the coronavirus.
BRN, however, attached a condition: It reserved the right to resume its activities if its forces came under attack.
A lull in the regional violence lasted for about a month after the rebels declared the ceasefire. It effectively crumbled at the end of April after the Thai military killed three suspected insurgents in a raid in Pattani province, with Thai officials accusing them of plotting attacks during Ramadan.
BRN spokesman Abdul Karim Khalid subsequently posted a video on YouTube where he blamed the Thai side for taking advantage of the pandemic to launch the deadly raid.
Days later, two soldiers minding a COVID-19 check point were shot and killed in Nong Chik, a district in Pattani. Officials believed the BRN were exacting revenge.
At least 10 people have been killed in shootouts or roadside ambushes in the Deep South since BRN’s ceasefire faltered at the end of April, according to the police reports complied by BenarNews.
The latest incident occurred on Wednesday. A lone gunman, who had a criminal record linked to insurgent activities according to officials, rode a motorcycle to a checkpoint in Pattani town where he shot a soldier in the cheek before he was gunned down.
Still, as Wanlop described it, BRN in the past two months has carried out relatively fewer attacks.
“In regard to the BRN’s ceasefire, we cannot verify it clearly. But the situation got better for multiple reasons,” he said. “The BRN’s reduced activities are a positive sign.”
“I think the decline in violence has multiple factors – the spread of COVID-19 and other [things],” Wanlop added.
Dolneeya Molo, a resident of Yala, another province in the insurgency-wracked region, expressed appreciation for the efforts to negotiate an end to the conflict.
“I’d be glad if they can bring peace to Deep South as soon as possible, at least like these past three months,” Dolneeya told BenarNews. “I wish the government and the BRN and all sides have sincerity to achieve the goal for the sake of the people.”
More than 7,000 people have died in violence across the various provinces and districts that make up Thailand’s mainly Muslim and Malay-speaking southern border region since the separatist insurgency reignited in 2004.
Noah Lee in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.