Smile, Anwar's here
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Smile, Anwar's here

His rise to power in Malaysia is seen as a boon to southern peace talks

Keeping the peace: A combined team of security forces searches a location in Sai Buri district of Pattani on Friday, where a school janitor was detained for questioning on suspicion of being involved in a security violation activity.
Keeping the peace: A combined team of security forces searches a location in Sai Buri district of Pattani on Friday, where a school janitor was detained for questioning on suspicion of being involved in a security violation activity.

Anwar Ibrahim's rise to power as Malaysia's prime minister and his upcoming visit to the kingdom has rekindled hope for a return of peace to the far South, according to experts.

Mr Anwar, now 75, is known far and wide within the state sector, civic networks and even underground insurgent movements, said Mansor Salae, an independent academic and coordinator of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) for peace and development in the southern border areas.

The far South has begun to prepare for the Malaysian prime minister's official visit to Thailand on Feb 10.

Here, Mr Anwar will meet Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon to discuss security cooperation between the two countries.

Renewing ties: Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will travel to Thailand on Feb 10 to meet officials.

After being sworn in as Malaysia's 10th leader, Mr Anwar visited Indonesia and Singapore and is now due in Thailand early next month, says the Malaysian Foreign Affairs Ministry.

Even though civil society organisations in the region are not parties to the southern conflict, they want to do their part to ease almost two decades of insurgent violence, Mr Mansor said.

Malaysia, as facilitator of the peace process, represents a crucial jigsaw piece in the roadmap to solving the insurgency that flared up in January 2004 when militants overran the 4th Development Battalion at the Kromluang Narathiwat Ratchanakarin military camp in Narathiwat's Cho Airong district, making off with a large cache of firearms.

The theft preceded a wave of attacks and snowballed into a separatist movement seeking autonomy.

State authorities have resorted to various strategies to campaign against violence, albeit without success.

The authorities often came under criticism for allegedly mistreating residents which fuelled hostility against the officials and subdued the quest for peace to be restored.

Since 2004, more than 7,000 people have been killed and 13,500 others injured in violence across the Deep South, including in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.

The CSOs came about to help create the groundwork for the peace process, which also draws on the strength of Thai-Malaysian relations, Mr Mansor said.

Genuine peace advocate

Mr Mansor said he has previously led the Young Muslim Association of Thailand (YMAT). Mr Anwar was also a youth leader in his younger days.

"We both are bound by faith in genuine peace," he said.

The network coordinator said although Malaysia may have experienced hiccups exerting its role as facilitator due to internal politics, it has not been a problem for peace negotiations between the Thai government and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) separatist movement.

In fact, Zulkifli bin Zainal Abidin, a former Malaysian general facilitating the peace talks, is expected to attend an assembly on Feb 28 in the far South. His presence will bolster residents' confidence in Malaysia's role.

Mr Zulkifli is expected to discuss a framework with Gen Prawit and Gen Wallop Raksanoh, head of the government's negotiation team in the deep South, for a new round of talks.

For years, locals have waited for the peace negotiations to bear fruit. Despite talks having been held back by some delays, essentially the achievement so far is the insurgency issue has been laid out on the table for discussion under the framework of the constitution.

Srisompob: BRN concerns remain

Open playing field

A sense of openness has allowed for possible solutions and ideas to be discussed.

Mr Mansor said the Thai government and the BRN are able to hold a candid discussion where both sides will be clear on what peace-forging agreements they feel inclined to sign.

"We believe that during the five years of (Mr Anwar's term in office), he can be instrumental in pushing for headway to be made (in the peace talks)," Mr Mansor said.

He added there is always the possibility of more peace-related agreements being inked as some semblance of normalcy might emerge from the peace talks.

The Thai CSOs are familiar with those working behind the scenes. Certain suggestions beneficial to the negotiations put forth by the CSOs may be conveyed to the peace broker team.

Mr Mansor said he thought the peace negotiators have come across as calm and collected while being perceptive to ideas.

Also, senior military officers in charge of security duties were generally thinking more out of the box, he added.

However, it was crucial to get other state agencies on board the peace effort by making them more active in embracing a locals-friendly approach to alleviating unrest.

Mr Mansor said bureaucracy must be in sync with the steps towards the peace process.

Specific agreements in order

Specific agreements should be signed, pertaining to the reduction of violence and its frequency in local areas and the opening of forums where the BRN can listen to residents' views.

They might come to terms with the reality that not everyone in the community was on the same page with them.

Mr Mansor said the agreements should also address political methods of dealing with the unrest, such as the proposed Pattani metropolitan administration aimed at offering the far South greater independence in running its own affairs.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri, an academic at the Prince of Songkla University's Pattani campus, said the peace talks should improve with Mr Anwar as prime minister as he understands the insurgency issue well and retains longstanding connections with people in the southern provinces.

Profound insight

Mr Anwar is credited with having a more profound understanding of the southern unrest than his predecessors. The naming of Mr Zulkifli as facilitator also bodes well for the talks since he has a family background that is closely linked to the far South.

"When cross-border ties are lifted, trade and tourism between the two countries are certain to improve," he said.

Mr Srisompob, however, said concerns remain as to whether BRN members can inclusively engage in the talks and if there could be any hindrance in inviting them to the negotiation table.

In addition, outstanding issues which remain unresolved, such as the designation of violence-free zones will require hard work on the part of the facilitator, he said, adding the stability of the Anwar coalition government could pose a challenge to the peace talks.

On the other hand, the terms of negotiations for Thailand are relatively intact with no change of government.

Panitan: High hopes of success

Close ties a plus

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a former international relations lecturer at Chulalongkorn University, said Mr Anwar is close to many figures in Thailand including politicians, senior military officers and academics as well as civil society.

He has travelled to Thailand many times and maintains close ties to Gen Prawit and several Thai southern MPs.

The Malaysian premier is widely known among residents across Malaysia's northern states bordering Thailand's far South. His ties go a long way in the peace negotiation.

Also, as Malaysia has emerged from a recent political crisis, the new leadership might be interested in embarking on fresh policies, which may include a serious involvement in fixing the insurgency problem.

The Anwar administration might also want to spur the economies in Malaysia's northern states which would create prosperity for Thai provinces that border them. That would lead to economic connectivity and ease of travel for citizens of the countries.

Mr Panitan said the peace talks could bring in wider insurgent groups other than the BRN.

Mr Anwar is a progressive-thinking politician, having joined the United Malays National Organisation (Umno) in his younger years. He also has much experience working with people on the ground and is believed to be warm to the idea of giving younger people a say in tackling the southern unrest.

"In the broad picture, there are high hopes (for the peace talks) although they come with a degree of caution to avoid disappointment.

"This time around, however, the probability (of the talks bearing fruit) is higher than in the past many years," he said.

In the longer term, how the peace talks pan out will also depend on the stability of the Anwar government, he added.

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