How Malaysia can help facilitate peace in Thailand’s restive Muslim south

Peace talks in Thailand’s restive south are likely to gain momentum under Malaysia’s new leadership, experts said on Friday, after Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim pledged to help solve the neighboring country’s decades-long insurgency.

Predominantly Buddhist Thailand for decades has been confronting a separatist movement from a Muslim and ethnic minority concentrated in its southern provinces. The mainly ethnic Malay communities continue to have a common sense of grievance that they were separated from their kin across the border in Malaysia after a treaty between British colonial powers and Siam, now the kingdom of Thailand, in the early 20th century.

Under the 1909 deal, the former Siamese tributary states of Terengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis were incorporated into British Malaya, while Pattani and Satun were acknowledged as territory of Siam. The fixed border established at that time is the current boundary between Thailand and Malaysia.

The first armed resistance to the division emerged on the Thai side in the 1920s and was suppressed by the government. However, the secessionist movement has not stopped and several separatist revivals have taken place throughout the decades.

In 2004, there was an unprecedented increase in insurgent violence, involving militants who received training during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

More than 7,300 people have been killed since then in fighting between Thai security forces and groups seeking independence, mainly in the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani and parts of Songkhla.

Malaysia has been helping to facilitate peace negotiations between separatist groups and the Thai government since 2013, but the talks have been repeatedly disrupted.

During his first state visit to Bangkok on Thursday, Ibrahim pledged during a meeting with his Thai counterpart, Prayuth Chan-ocha, to “do whatever is required and necessary to facilitate the (peace) process.”

The Thai government issued a statement after the meeting saying that both leaders reaffirmed their commitment to “seek new cooperation for Thailand-Malaysia border area to become peaceful and prosperous.”

Anwar, one of the most prominent Muslim leaders in Southeast Asia who took office in November, is likely to bring “vigor” into the new negotiations, Sivamurugan Pandian, professor of political sociology at the Universiti Sains Malaysia, told Arab News.

“Although it might take some time, constructive engagement can be used as a mechanism to vow support and get a win-win solution,” he said.

“Anwar has a strong personality and is loved by Muslim countries and regionally as well. He can use his strong leadership to facilitate, negotiate and mediate for neighboring countries, such as Thailand.”

Pandian added that Malaysia has a track record of being a mediator in regional conflicts involving Muslim separatist groups in non-Muslim countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the Philippines.

“As the closest border and considering religious element as well, Malaysia understands better the Muslim world and ASEAN world as well,” he said.

It also has the ethnic and religious leverage other countries in the region lack.

“Malaysia seems to have a disproportionate suasion over the southern rebels, freedom fighters, guerrillas, separatists, and the bilateral working relations with the Thais are cordial and pragmatic,” Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, said.

“We have the competence to be the mediator if there is trust by both sides of the conflict. We also have a good reputation of settling our international disputes peacefully and in accordance with international law.”