Mahathir’s Win Opens New Avenue to Peace in Deep South

Mahathir Mohamad speats at a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday. Image: Associated Press

The results of the 14th general election in Malaysia – and the potential impact on Thailand – are now clear. After ruling the country for six decades, the multi-ethnic coalition called Barisan National – the National Front – was finally defeated by the Pakatan Harapan – Alliance for Hope – under the leadership of 92-year-old former premier Mahathir Mohamad.

This is a significant lesson for Thai people that a great administrative change can happen within the framework of democracy, without resorting to the coup d’etats or street mobs which are utterly counterproductive both for the economy and politics.

Less than a day after the surprise victory was announced, there are already talks of what changes will be brought about by the new administration, including the peace process in Thailand’s southern border provinces, where more than 6,200 people have died in the secessionist conflict that broke out 14 years ago.

Malaysia has been playing an important role in the peace effort, serving as a de facto mediator for the Thai government and a network of militant groups fighting for independence of the region, which they call Patani.

While there might be some changes in the peace process under the new government, it is very unlikely that the process will be scrapped.

Although the process was inaugurated by the administration of Najib Razak, there is no reason to dismiss it, because it was formally acknowledged by both governments. The most likely change to come is the person in charge of the effort.

The current facilitator, Zamzamin Ahmad, is a retired government official appointed to the job by his longtime friend Najib – both men were originally from the same Pahang State village – based on a contract, but the government never told the public when it will expire. He will likely retain his job until the end of its secretive contract, unless someone very close to Mahathir strongly wishes to take over.

The peace process has been like a train without a locomotive. It has produced some fruits – a public space in the conflict area, an enhanced understanding of the conflict and so on – but it has never moved in the direction it is supposed to move: Solving the disputes and creating sustainable peace.

Although Zamzamin shouldn’t be entirely blamed for the current circumstances, his modus operandi seems to be stuck in a cul-de-sac. Leaders of the most influential insurgent group, the BRN, still remain outside the process. Discussion about establishing a safety zone, which would include a half-baked amnesty and regional ceasefire, has been suspended.

Some activists in the region derisively described Zamzamin as the facilitator only for Party A and Party B – the Thai government and the insurgent groups – but not for the local people.

During the first round of the process, he made an appearance in Patani. But ever since the second round was started by the current military junta, he has never shown up in the conflict zone.

There is also a serious concern about the new administration: Mahathir himself. During his term as the fifth prime minister of Malaysia in the late ‘90s, he had two leaders of the Patani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, arrested and extradited to Thailand. Both of them spent 18 years in jail. The incident caused significant unease among insurgency leaders at the time, most of which immediately left Malaysia to seek shelter elsewhere.

Because of the arrests, many senior movement leaders, especially from PULO, have expressed distrust of Mahathir. He should realise that the old modus operandi of iron-fisted approach is completely detrimental to the creation of peace in the region that borders his own country.

The lesson to be learned is this: The current peace process didn’t begin with an accord of all the belligerent parties, but at the request of the Thai government in 2012. To paint a picture of cooperation, the Malaysian government forced Hasan Taib, a senior BRN member, to join the inauguration ceremony. But since then, the main body of BRN has never been involved.

The violence in the region, although significantly reduced in the last few years, still continues. The peace process has hardly made any progress. Unduly pressuring the insurgent groups of Patani, most of whose senior leaders live in Malaysia, has never worked. The Malaysian government can influence these people, but the influence should be wielded in a much wiser way.

Zamzamin was a competent government officer (otherwise he wouldn’t have been appointed as the facilitator of the process), but to be a good facilitator requires more than bureaucratic survival skills.

So far, BRN has been pressured to join the process by the facilitator. What Zamzamin should have done was use his influence to talk senior members of the mainstream BRN into joining the process, not forcing them to do so. In other words, whoever facilitates things going forward should make use of that special position that enables dialog with the mainstream BRN, but also leave them to make their own decision.

A new page of Malaysian politics is turning. We also need a new page for the peace process in Patani.

 

Hara Shintaro is a researcher based in the Deep South. He can be followed on Twitter at @ShintaroPatani