Malaysia’s new government is set to name a former military chief as the new facilitator for the Thai Deep South peace talks and replace the one appointed in 2018, two sources told BenarNews on Wednesday.
Zulkifli Zainal Abidin, a 65-year-old retired army general, will take over from Abdul Rahim Noor as facilitator of the talks that aim to end a long-running separatist insurgency in Thailand’s southern border region, according to the chief negotiator for the BRN rebels and another source close to the negotiations.
“We have been made aware of the changes but not officially. And the [new] facilitator is Zulkifli,” said Anas Abdulrahman, who heads the delegation representing the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group at the peace talks that began in early 2020.
Another source close to the talks, but who was not authorized to speak to reporters, said the same.
“Yes, the new man has been confirmed. It is former army chief Zulkifli Zainal Abidin,” the source said.
“He will be making a visit to Bangkok to introduce himself properly to the Thai government,” the source, without saying when the trip would take place but that it would be soon.
In Thailand, the army commander for the southern region said he was aware that Zulkifli was to replace Rahim Noor, a former Malaysian national police chief.
“We know about the matter and we are coordinating on it,” Gen. Santi Sakuntanak told BenarNews.
Noor did not immediately respond to messages from BenarNews.
It was also not immediately clear why the Malaysian government decided to make the change, although there was a history of bad blood between Rahim Noor and Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia’s new prime minister. When he served as police chief in 1998, Rahim Noor notoriously gave Anwar a black eye by punching him in the face when he was in jail at the time.
Zulkifli, a trained sniper, and an expert in tactical weapons and anti-insurgency operations, had served in the army for more than four decades before retiring in 2020. He began his career in the army in 1978 and was made the army chief in 2011. He served as military chief in 2018.
Talks between negotiators representing Thailand’s government and insurgents in the largely Muslim and ethnic Malay southern border region were informally on hold while Malaysia – which for years has brokered the talks – held a general election in November. The two sides last met in August.
Prime Minister Anwar has already met with Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan. But the two governments have kept mum about the future direction of the peace talks.
The date of the next round of talks hasn’t yet been confirmed, although Noor told BenarNews in the second week of December that it would take place sometime in January.
After Anwar was named prime minister, analysts had told BenarNews they expected the slow-moving and thus far fruitless peace talks to get a shot in the arm, because the new leader was keenly interested in the issue.
Observers had also expected he would replace Rahim Noor who had punched Anwar in the eye in prison 24 years ago after then-PM Mahathir Mohamad had sacked Anwar as his deputy.
It was Mahathir who, during his latest stint as prime minister, appointed Rahim Noor in September 2018 as facilitator for the southern Thai peace talks, despite objections by Anwar’s party, which was part of Mahathir’s coalition.
Meanwhile, Zulkifli visited Rodzi Md. Saad, director-general of Malaysia’s National Security Council on Tuesday. The NSC is the agency that spearheads Malaysia’s initiative in facilitating the Deep South peace talks.
Rodzi said he and Zulkifli discussed numerous issues, including strengthening the country’s security.
“There were many issues discussed during this visit, which included steps to further strengthen the country’s security management by emphasizing peace, the wellbeing and safety,” he said in a social media post.
“Hope that the well experienced [Zulkifli], who is currently a lecturer at the National Defense University, can continue to contribute for the betterment of the nation.”
The armed separatist movement in the Deep South region against Buddhist-majority Thailand began in the 1960s.
The Deep South encompasses Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala provinces and four districts of Songkhla province. Since the insurgency reignited in January 2004, more than 7,344 people have been killed and 13,641 others injured in violence, according to Deep South Watch, a local think-tank.