The news that Thailand has agreed to formal Malaysian facilitation of a dialogue process to end the long conflict in southern Thailand is surely welcome. Most immediately it reflects that both the Thai government and all its parts, as well as the shadowy insurgent movement and all its parts agree that Malaysia needs to be part of the solution to the conflict that has raged for nine long years and cost more than 5,000 lives.
Armed soldiers providing security to school children are a common sight in the restive South. Malaysia’s role as mediator in peace talks between the Thai government and the insurgent movement has given fresh hope that normal life in the Muslim-dominated deep South will return. AFP
In fact, the last time the two sides met officially in January last year, they agreed that the next step towards resolving the problem rested on defining a role for Malaysia in the process. A lot of politics intervened and held things up, but this step has now been taken. It should now be possible to move towards a settlement of the conflict based on dialogue and compromise.
Reaching such a settlement need not be all that complicated. However, a great deal more trust and confidence between the parties will need to be established first. A number of recent developments suggest the way ahead. In a recent interview on Thai television, one of the leaders of the Patani Malay Liberation Movement, Kasturi Mahkota, made it clear that although the movement formally seeks independence from Thailand, it is open to suggestions and proposals from the government.
On the government side, there has long been resistance to the notion of any formal dialogue or negotiation. In recent years this position has changed, in part because of confidential talks that the government has engaged in with the movement since 2006.
As a direct outcome of these talks, the National Security Council (NSC) framed a national policy that was approved last year by parliament. It is now legal for government officials to speak to members of the insurgent movement, characterised as people whose views differ from that of the state, and that a form of more decentralised government could be the outcome of such discussions.
The agreement in Kuala Lumpur is a natural and appropriate progression towards resolving the conflict as it brings in the most relevant neighbouring state to help broker the deal. It builds on Malaysia's successful facilitation of an agreement to end the long-running conflict in Mindanao that was signed in Manila last October. Malaysia may not be wholly trusted because it has sheltered rebels from all of the internal conflicts affecting its neighbours. However, with the Mindanao peace process Kuala Lumpur has proven that it can use good offices and facilitation to end decades of fighting in the interests of regional stability.
For Thailand, like any other nation proudly defending its sovereignty, fear of sitting across a table from people who seek separation from the state should be tempered by the experiences of the Philippines and Indonesia. In both countries compromise solutions have been hammered out through dialogue and negotiation, leaving sovereignty intact.
The Patani Malay Liberation Movement is much misunderstood. Its leadership is shadowy because of a long history of treachery and betrayal at the hands of Thai or Malaysian intelligence. The last time the movement engaged openly in negotiations with the Thai military, under Malaysian protection, in the late 1990s, two of its key leaders were arrested and deported to Thailand where they remain in prison.
Since then, the movement has insisted on sending intermediaries and representatives to engage the Thai government. Although, this means their mandate is somewhat restricted, they argue that Thai officials are similarly hamstrung by factional infighting within the Thai state system, and no clear signal from the very highest levels of the Thai establishment that it means business.
The advantage of the Kuala Lumpur accord is that it signals very clearly that Bangkok is ready to engage and, presumably, Malaysian facilitation will ensure this engagement is in good faith. There is much work to be done. It is positive that the Thai government has agreed it will be represented by the NSC, which includes representatives of both civil and military agencies. The Patani United Liberation Organisation, one element of the insurgent movement, has already openly declared it is open to bringing legitimate representatives with a mandate to negotiate to the table. The Malaysian government has said it wants talks to start within two weeks, which may sound ambitious but is doable.
As in any peace process, it is important for both sides to recognise the need to be inclusive. Over the nine years the conflict has raged, ordinary citizens in the South have mobilised to build a broad base for deciding the future of the three provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. These voices in civil society and their views - particularly of the women who have borne the brunt of suffering losses to their families on both sides of the ethnic divide - need to be taken into account by both parties to the conflict, as was the case in Mindanao.
The international community, and particularly the Muslim world, to which the Patani Malay Liberation Movement looks to for moral support, also needs to lend support to the process. It would be helpful for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and other international bodies to endorse the process and give Thailand confidence that the steps it may take towards ending the conflict peacefully are recognised internationally, but then keep a discreet distance and allow the dialogue to proceed.
A range of states and private actors have been involved in pushing the two sides in this direction, and they should now swing behind the process and lend support to the parties as and when requested. The Mindanao peace process was exceptionally well-serviced by both official actors and civil society. Their support helped produce an agreement that takes into account the needs of the community on both sides of the religious and ethnic divide.
With any luck, the step taken by the two prime ministers in Kuala Lumpur, signals the beginning of an end to a conflict that in terms of human suffering and loss ranks as one of the worst in the region.
Michael Vatikiotis is Asia Regional Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. He has helped facilitate dialogue between the Royal Thai Government and the Patani Malay Liberation Movement since 2006.
About the author
Writer: Michael Vatikiotis