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Thailand’s New Army Chief Voices Optimism about Peace Talks in Deep South

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By Mariyam Ahmad and Araya Pocha

Thailand’s new army chief struck an upbeat tone ahead of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s first official visit that begins Wednesday, saying the leader of the new government in Kuala Lumpur was on the same page as his Thai counterpart regarding southern peace talks.

Gen. Apirat Kongsompong spoke about Malaysia-brokered efforts to end a long-running separatist conflict in the Thai Deep South during a trip to the border region – his first since taking over as commander of the Royal Thai Army on Oct. 1. He also traveled there after the various sides in the three-year-old talks revamped their delegations.

“We need peace talks because the matter is very delicate,” Apirat told a news conference on Monday in Khok Po, a district of Pattani province. “I believe the situation will soon improve because the two prime ministers have shown signs of full cooperation in peace talks.”

He was visiting mosques and temples during his two-day trip to promote harmony among the region’s Muslim majority and its Buddhist minority, he said.

Mahathir’s trip, meanwhile, comes after Malaysia and Thailand changed their main representatives at the talks between the Thai junta and southern insurgents, and MARA Patani, an umbrella body negotiating on behalf of different rebel groups, announced it had expanded.

“With regard to the peace talks, the Thai and Malaysian government give top priority to the problems in Deep South. Malaysia doesn’t support, nor agree with violence,” Apirat said.

Neither Thailand nor Malaysia has officially provided an official statement explaining Mahathir’s visit, his first trip to Bangkok since he led an opposition coalition to a stunning victory in the May general elections.

But Thai Prime Minister and junta chief Prayuth Chan-o-cha was quoted last month as saying that Mahathir’s presence in the kingdom would allow the neighboring nations to discuss the stalled peace talks in the far south.

“The Malaysian government emphasized this matter and talks have been continuing,” Prayuth told reporters, referring to the peace negotiations, according to the state-run Malaysian news agency Bernama.

“The new Malaysian prime minister also wanted Malaysia’s mission as the facilitator to be as successful as it can be,” he said.

Mahathir, 93, will lead a full cabinet delegation for an official visit that will feature a meeting with Prayuth, the Thai foreign affairs ministry said on Monday.

Mahathir is scheduled to arrive at Bangkok’s Air Force Wing 6 Airbase on Wednesday morning. He will have a 30-minute meeting with Prayuth at Government House in Bangkok in the late afternoon, Thai officials said.

The following day, Mahathir will pay a courtesy call to Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda, a 98-year-old retired military officer and former prime minister who heads Thailand’s Privy Council, the body that advises King Maha Vajiralongkorn (Rama X). Mahathir will also attend a luncheon with the Malaysian community in Thailand, officials said.

Revamped teams

Last week, Prayuth confirmed that Thailand had named Udomchai Thammasarorat, a former commander of an army division that oversees southern Thailand, as the new chief Thai negotiator in the talks aimed at resolving the separatist conflict, which has claimed thousands of lives over decades.

The spokesman for a panel negotiating on behalf of southern rebels, MARA Patani, also said last week that it had added three new groups and planned to present a new proposal after a general election in Thailand next year. As a result of the expansion, the umbrella body has rebranded itself as MARA Patani Plus, spokesman Abu Hafez Al-Hakim told BenarNews in Malaysia.

Udomchai replaced Gen. Aksara Kerdpol who had led the Thai delegation in the negotiations with MARA since they began in 2015. Two months ago, Malaysia also appointed former police chief Abdul Rahim Noor as facilitator of the Kuala Lumpur-brokered peace talks.

Meanwhile, in an interview with BBC Thai published on Monday, Abdul Karim Khalid, a spokesman for the Patani-Malay National Revolutionary Front, or BRN rebel group, warned that the peace talks would only succeed if the Thai government negotiated directly with it and not through MARA.

“We have to make it known to them today, between the two PMs, they have to recognize that we are important,” he said of the group he represents, generally recognized currently as the largest and best-armed of the rebel organizations in the Deep South.

“If both sides are not interested or dogmatic to do the same thing, I can say that there is no meaning whatsoever,” he said.

Almost 7,000 people have been killed in violence throughout Thailand’s southern border region, which borders Malaysia, since the insurgency re-ignited in 2004. The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces, as well as four districts of Songkhla province.

Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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