Negotiating the end of cross-border insurgency
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Negotiating the end of cross-border insurgency

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the Hat Yai Peace accords that ended the Communist Party of Malaya's (CPM) 41-year insurgency. This historical episode resonates with present day insurgencies where cross-border linkages can often allow insurgencies to persist and "good neighbourly" relations can open up possibilities for an enduring peace.

Reminiscent of Mao's Long March, the CPM began a phased withdrawal to the jungles of southern Thailand in April 1952. From the early 1960s, southern Thailand was the safe haven from which the CPM could re-organise, rebuild and rekindle its armed struggle.

At the outbreak of the so-called Second Emergency in 1968, control of the Betong Salient in southern Thailand provided the CPM with permanent bases to launch cross-border operations into Malaysia and a sanctuary in which to organise, train, recruit and gain support from the local Thai population.

For Malaysia, the Second Emergency (1968-1989) was a continuation of a "long war" that now took on a cross-border dimension that had not previously existed.

Unlike the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war fought from 1948 to 1960, which was localised in Peninsular Malaysia, the Second Emergency was a persistent slow burn conflict in southern Thailand that was difficult to defeat by security operations alone.

By 1981, the CPM had become a cross-border insurgent movement that presented a latent rather than existential threat to Malaysia. Defeating the CPM insurgency by military ways and means, however, continued to elude the Malaysian Armed Forces. Moreover, despite the low level of CPM activity in the early 1980s, the financial cost of deployment in the border area for Malaysia continued to be high.

Expanding the room for dialogue

By the early 1980s, the CPM leadership tacitly acknowledged that the armed struggle had failed. The CPM's lack of dialogue with the Malaysian political establishment, however, meant that channels of conflict resolution were closed to the party. Unfettered by their less adversarial experience with the CPM, the Thais began to adopt a more conciliatory approach in the 1980s.

Surreptitious initial contacts were made between the local CPM and Thai Army commanders such as Lt Col Akanit Muansawad. These initial local successes subsequently led to the gradual pursuit of more formal talks. The high level of trust established between Lt Col Akanit and his CPM contacts subsequently allowed him to reach out to members of the CPM politburo in southern Thailand.

In this endeavour, Lt Col Akanit had the support of Gen Kitti Ratanachaya, Commander of the Thai Fifth Infantry Division (later commander of the Fourth Army Region). Room for dialogue between the CPM and both the Malaysian and Thai governments gradually began to grow. Both Gen Kitti and Lt Col Akanit were instrumental in facilitating a dialogue between the CPM and Malaysia which gradually progressed into talks with the Malaysian government that culminated in the signing of the Hat Yai Peace Agreement.

Learning from failures

When Abdul Rahim Noor took over the reins as director of the Malaysia Special Branch (MSB) in 1986 he was able to persuade Mahathir Mohamad, then Home Affairs minister, to pursue negotiations with the CPM.

Despite the political necessity of taking a tough public stance on the CPM insurgency, Dr Mahathir's policy on negotiating with the CPM did not change when he assumed the leadership of Malaysia as prime minister in 1987.

Crucial to the success of the negotiation process were the lessons learned by MSB from the failure of the Baling Talks in 1955. This time MSB negotiators avoided the imposition of terms that were unacceptable to the CPM such as "surrender of weapons" and "dissolution of the party".

The newly appointed MSB director, Rahim Noor, had the advantage of approaching the CPM issue unhindered by the bias of past experience. On taking the path of negotiations, he noted that: "This can happen because you were not involved in fighting. But if you were, [it's] probably different."

He was particularly mindful of that harsh tone on the government side that prevented a negotiated peace at Baling.

The first round of tripartite peace talks between the CPM and both the Malaysian and Thai governments began in February 1989, in Phuket, Thailand. When the fifth round of tripartite talks was concluded in November 1989, a peace agreement had been reached with the signing of the peace treaty at Hat Yai on Dec 2, 1989.

Building an enduring peace

As part of the Hat Yai Peace Agreement, about 700 CPM members were resettled in Thailand and about 400 were to return to Malaysia. The agreement allowed CPM members of Malaysian origin to return and receive assistance from the Malaysian authorities "in order to help them to start their peaceful life afresh".

Mindful of the failure at Baling, the word "surrender" was left out of the agreement. Article 2 which laid down the terms for the disbandment and disarmament of the CPM armed units stipulated that: "The Communist Party of Malaya shall disband all its armed units, destroy its arms, ammunition, explosives and booby-traps in Malaysia and Thailand."

Moreover, there were no harsh terms that required the formal dissolution of the CPM as a political party.

Such terms could be seen as generous particularly within military circles who "made no bones about the fact that the CPM only took this step because they were beaten militarily".

The CPM was defeated as a political and military force, but the final Hat Yai agreement was generous in the spirit of national reconciliation. It was a "peace with honour" that allowed the CPM to end the shooting war without losing its dignity.

Can a peace process that happened 30 years ago hold any lessons for today? Just as 30 years ago, success in dealing with cross-border insurgencies today is subject to the ebb and flow of "good neighbourly" relations. Neighbourly assistance in the form of intelligence sharing and growing the negotiation space is crucial. It is also a process that requires trust-based relationships that may take a long time to build.

Tan Sri Rahim Noor is currently the Malaysian facilitator of the peace process between the Thai government and groups within the Pattani separatist movement. A key function is similar to the "bridging" role that Lt Col Akanit played in the 1980s. The trust that Lt Col Akanit was able to build with the CPM took time and effort -- particularly the gumption to look beyond acrimony despite having lost men in the deep jungles of southern Thailand.

The political and ideological context of the CPM insurgency is very different from the separatist insurgency in Thailand's deep South, but if there is an enduring lesson to be learned from the Hat Yai Peace Talks, it is that a "neighbourly" trust-based negotiation process remains key to building an enduring peace in southern Thailand.

Ong Weichong is assistant professor, Military Studies Programme, Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore-based Nanyang Technological University.

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