Revitalising Thailand-Malaysia ties
'So close and yet so far" is a popular description of the current state of ties between Thailand and Malaysia. It could have been better in the past, but now both countries can make a difference. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is visiting Thailand next month to advance bilateral ties to another level, but several elements are needed.
First, further strengthening leadership rapport and trust is a must. When Mr Anwar was appointed the 10th Malaysian prime minister in December, there was a sigh of relief among the Thai Cabinet, and National Security Council tasked to handle the situation in southern Thailand.
Many among the Thai authorities recall the visit of former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad to Thailand in the 1990s, which created a strong sense of optimism thanks to the bond he established with former prime minister Chuan Leekpai, currently the House speaker. Since then, it would be hard to say that there has been a comfortable level of leadership rapport with Thailand's domestic turmoil contributing to the stagnation of engagement.
Since Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon visited Kuala Lumpur last month to congratulate Mr Anwar on his appointment as PM, Thai diplomats and the security apparatus have been busy preparing for his pending visit and its likely outcomes.
Granted on what appears to be strong leadership rapport, bilateral talks are now focusing on the ways and means to make the shared border a zone of peace and prosperity. Among the talks is the stalled peace process in southern Thailand.
Second, a big push is necessary to bolster the Joint Development Strategy for Border Areas (JDS), established in 2004 to ensure common border zones would be developed in all dimensions, including trade and transportation facilitation, special economic zones, and tourism. The first decade of the JDS saw constructive progress in promoting a more peaceful environment aimed at fostering a higher standard of living for the citizens on both sides of the border.
However, the JDS needs a strong push from the top if it is to fulfil its objectives. Over the past three years, it has been convenient to place the blame on the pandemic, but the truth remains: the JDS has not done its job. It's hoped that when Mr Anwar is in Bangkok, the two sides can reinvigorate the JDS as the key mechanism aimed at securing peace and prosperity in the South.
In addition, the Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation, which met for the 14th time in August 2022, will need to implement action plans on common development projects without delay.
Third, the southern peace process has now reached a critical juncture needing another push from the Thai and Malaysian leaders. Leaders from both countries feel uncomfortable entertaining long-embedded narratives that Thailand has persistently mistreated the Muslim community and the southern provinces while areas across the border have been used to harbour separatists.
Now both countries can show whether these narratives are accurate. Malaysia, as the facilitator, has already set up a team to recalibrate its duty with Gen Tan Sri Zulkifli Zainal Abidin as its head. He is no stranger to the Thai army. On the Thai side, all agencies concerned, no less than 17, must work together in tandem, especially the peace negotiating team and regional security leaders.
Officials from each country have worked well in the past to resolve challenging issues, with one being the shared border, which includes both land and maritime boundaries in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. When the two countries tackled overlapping claims in the Gulf of Thailand back in 1979, they achieved the near-impossible task by setting up the Malaysia-Thai Joint Authority to manage the disputed area covering 7,250 square kilometres.
Fourth, the Thailand-Malaysian border is the most open and accessible of all borders with neighbouring countries. Citizens on both sides can literally walk across the border via both land and river at any point. According to a senior official, there are more than 50 entry points for the local people to reach out to one another at the border without facing scrutiny.
Given the resources in the common border areas, it's imperative that there must be clear guidelines to ensure that the increased contacts would not lead to the proliferation of grey business activities, which are treated at the international level as transnational criminal threats. Jointly combating transnational crime could be a new priority, given the severity of the problem involving more and more Asean nationals.
Fifth, Thailand and Malaysia have to team up to help Myanmar return to normalcy. The Anwar government has been pursuing an Asean-led consensus, which was a far cry from the previous government.
Although Malaysia does not share a common border with Myanmar, the country has been dealing with an influx of Rohingya refugees over the past few decades. Some of these refugees, through human trafficking networks, have used Thailand as a transit point as they were smuggled into Malaysia. Others have braved the high seas and sailed directly to Malaysia. To address such issues, Malaysia can play a supporting role in any Asean-led humanitarian assistance while backing inclusive political dialogues involving all stakes holders.
Finally, younger stakeholders on both sides must be taken into account and encouraged to work together on joint programmes benefiting local communities while building social and cultural pillars for future generations. Before Covid-19, at least 170,000 Thais were living in Malaysia -- a mixed bag of labourers, students, and restaurant (tomyum kedai) investors, among others. Most of them are young people with a better understanding of mixed cultures and religious backgrounds. They can assist the peace process through more dialogue with their peers in Thai-Malay communities. Authorities on both sides must also encourage activities that enhance understanding and increase trust and tolerance among the youth.
What is lacking at a higher level are exchanges among the academics and media, both powerful influences in shaping public perception of Thailand-Malaysia relations. Collaborative research on common topics that would benefit both countries needs to be carried out. Media communities of the two countries need to get together and avoid stereotypical reporting on the situation in southern Thailand and other topics.
To herald a new era between the two close neighbours, there should be an annual consultation between the Thai and Malay prime ministers. The last time they met was seven years ago. With clear and shared visions from the top leaders, the long-elusive dream of a zone of peace and prosperity in the South can become a reality.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs