Civilian succeeds general in Thai peace talks with southern rebels

Nontarat Phaicharoen, Mariyam Ahmad and Muzliza Mustafa
Bangkok, Pattani, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur
Civilian succeeds general in Thai peace talks with southern rebels Chatchai Bangchuad (second from left), Thailand’s then-deputy chief negotiator in peace talks with BRN rebels, looks on as top negotiator Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh receives a petition from Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, at a Bangkok hotel, Feb. 24, 2023.
Nontarat Phaicharoen/BenarNews

Thailand’s new government has appointed the first civilian to lead the country in Malaysia-brokered peace negotiations with separatist rebels in the mainly Malay Muslim Deep South, officials confirmed Tuesday.

Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, the Malaysian facilitator, said he planned to meet soon with the new head of the Thai delegation, Chatchai Bangchuad.

Their first meeting likely will not include representatives from Barisan Revolusi Nasionalthe largest and most powerful of insurgents groups in Thailand’s southern border region – Zulkifli said, adding he expected BRN to welcome the change. Chatchai did not immediately respond to BenarNews requests for comment. 

“I think he is the best candidate to take over the role as head of the Thai team for peace talks as he was the deputy when Gen. Wanlop Rugsanaoh led the team,” Zulkifli told BenarNews. “I will be meeting him next week either in Bangkok or in Kuala Lumpur to discuss further steps.

“The announcement was made on Monday and we only found out about it today so give us time, but I think BRN also wants the negotiations to continue.” 

Chatchai, appointed by Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin as the new chief negotiator for the Thai side, serves as deputy secretary-general at the National Security Council and has been involved in peace talks since before Malaysia began brokering efforts in 2013.

The Thai government held a series of direct negotiations with BRN rebels, beginning in 2020, but the talks went into a hiatus after the insurgents indicated earlier this year that they would hold off until after the outcome of the May 2023 general election. Srethha’s government came to power in early September after a post-polls impasse that lasted at least three months.

Before 2020, government negotiators had met with MARA Patani, an umbrella panel representing Deep South rebel organizations and factions including the BRN. 

Officially termed the Peace Dialogue Panel, the delegation consists of the army commander for the southern region, the director general of civilian affairs group Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center, and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. 

The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. Since the insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed and more than 13,600 were injured in violence in the mainly Muslim Malay border region, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.

Anwar, Srettha meet

After his trip to the southern Thai border town of Sadao to meet Srettha on Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said he believed his counterpart wanted to reach a peace agreement in the Deep South. 

“I saw there is willingness by the Thai PM to seriously find solutions – we will continue our role as the facilitator led by Tan Sri Zulkifli,” Anwar told reporters after the visit.

An analyst, meanwhile, said Chatchai’s appointment could have a positive effect on the negotiations. 

“Being a civilian, Chatchai changes the past image of the panel which utilized retired soldiers,” Panitan Wattanayagorn, former chief security adviser to the Prayuth Chan-o-cha administration who is a scholar on security and foreign affairs. “To have a civilian official take the leading role could yield positive results and [bring] progress [to peace talks] more than in the past.

“But the limitations are that he could not decide on sensitive and crucial issues such as weapon disarming, agreement to refrain from violence and safety zone [creation]. A civil servant cannot decide and it must be the prime minister’s call.” 

Another analyst said he anticipated no change. 

“I don’t believe the new chief could make a change,” Prasit Meksuwan, an independent academic, told BenarNews. “Thailand should delegate the persons who know the matter best, incorporate intelligence and include soldiers because the BRN has its military wing in its delegation.”   

A BRN youth sympathizer argued that the Thai government needed sincerity to bring about a peaceful settlement to the decades-old conflict.

“I’m glad [that to have a civilian peace talk chief] but in the past Thailand did not have sincerity, so the process failed,” the sympathizer who requested anonymity over safety concerns told BenarNews. “I want the violence to end with my generation.” 


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.