Q&A with new southern Thailand peace broker: ‘This is about humanity’

Muzliza Mustafa and Nisha David
Kuala Lumpur
Q&A with new southern Thailand peace broker: ‘This is about humanity’ Retired Gen. Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, Malaysian facilitator for the Southern Thailand peace talks, speaks to journalists in Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 22, 2023.
S. Mahfuz/BenarNews

The first thing Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, the new Malaysian facilitator for the Thai Deep South peace talks, decided to do after being appointed last month was start to meet with all parties involved in the conflict on the Thai-Malaysian border.

Zulkifli says he should be accessible to everyone, as that is the only way to keep communication flowing. And regular communication will engender trust, which he believes has been in short supply in the process of ending the conflict in the Malay-majority Thai Deep South. 

Zulkifli this week attended his first round of talks since taking over the position and achieved the rare feat of a joint press conference with negotiators representing the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group. He also convinced BRN, the main rebel group, to agree in principle to other southern Thai groups joining the talks.

If that does materialize, it would be the first time since 2018 that groups other than BRN participate in the peace negotiations.

Zulkifli sat down with BenarNews for an exclusive interview after the first round of talks he brokered in Kuala Lumpur. Excerpts from the interview have been edited for clarity:

BenarNews: You were appointed on Jan.1, barely two months ago. What was the first thing you did when you got the job?

Zulkifli Zainal Abidin: I have been moving all over. I’ve seen everyone – BRN members, PULO and BIPP members.

I have met and spoken to all of them; I met with BRN heads as well and they agreed in principle to invite others because they do not want to be alone. They want to be inclusive too.

We need to send a formal invitation to them to make it happen. We are also planning to allow NGOs from Malaysia and other NGOs to get involve in the peace talks. A few have written to us to be observers ... I will look into this after my return from southern Thailand.

And I have to discuss this with both parties because I’m not the decision maker. Both parties have to agree to [this] ... it is unfair for me to push whoever I want.

BN: What will be different this time to ensure that these discussions/talks will eventually lead to the end of conflict?

ZZA: I must allow communication 24/7. I must allow everybody to speak. Do not hold punches when they speak, and I must be a good listener.

However, [being a] good listener without giving thoughts or suggestions is not a good facilitator. I facilitate whatever they want. I try my level best to use my grey matter to give options.

However, the decision always is theirs to make. That’s why the prime minister always said that trust deficit must be overcome.

Now, in a way we have overcome it. We spoke our mind, we shared our thoughts and showed that we are sincere. That’s the only thing that I do.

This is about humanity. This is about producing chemistry. It is easier said than done but I have to make sure that I have to open routes for discussion.

BN: Observers said that discussions between the two sides have never passed the trust building phase. What about now? Have we passed the trust building? Have we achieved trust?

ZZA: Yes, but the taste of the pudding is in the eating. So, we cannot put a barometer yet to this because the devil is in the details. Details are the ones that have lots of insights.

As a facilitator, I must see the details, see the reason why of certain actions/suggestions and try to understand and facilitate and to make sure the other side understands.

BN: You are going to southern Thailand but there are always people who have a certain skepticism about your trip there, saying it will only for appeasing the Thais and that your movements will not be free and easy as you would like.

ZZA: I cannot sit still and do nothing. I cannot limit myself and prevent myself from using this opportunity to be there. I have to try and I must open the line of communication. Everybody can come and see me.

BN: Was reduction of violence discussed in this meeting?

ZZA: Yes, we did. However, it was only in brief because we cannot focus on that or else we get stuck. We must focus on Joint Comprehensive Plan toward Peace. That is why we said we have to have technical meetings to iron out the details.

This is not a small matter. This is a very serious matter. We will meet again next month. I am working on it.

BN: When you decided to accept this task, were you persuaded?

ZZA: The prime minister asked me to take on the task. As a soldier, I have got to take that as the task for the nation. So, I said yes without hesitation.

BN: Were you pressed to get quick results or report to the PM?

ZZA: No. I have been given the liberty to do what I can or must do to achieve a good result. However, as a subordinate, I report to him [Anwar Ibrahim] all the time and he gave me guidance.

BN: I have been informed that BRN military wing was not so happy with the JCPP, as you have put pressure on BRN to agree to use the roadmap. Is it true?

ZZA: It was utter nonsense. I did not pressure anybody.

I only give options and understanding. The BRN team were very good negotiators. We must compliment them.

It was not easy for me to get both sides to agree on things. It’s not easy for the Thais, it’s not easy for BRN as well.

Drafting one word could take us one hour or so, just to put it to you on the delicate of matters. My face turns red easily when things get tense. We have to take many breaks in between to make sure that discussion went through and we achieve the result that we need.


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