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On 25/2/2018  I published an article : The Peace Dialogue Process - Third year (2017) - . It began something like this : 

"My previous article on the peace process ( ) ended with a high expectation that the Safety Zone implementation would be put on trial as a pilot project by the first half of 2017. However that never materialized. If anything, it  goes to show that a peace process is always unpredictable, fragile and never without obstacles."

The peace dialogue was  indeed not very smooth throughout  2018 .   In an off-table encounter in January 2018 at Kuala Lumpur , both sides (parties A and B) struck a deal , achieved a significant "breakthrough" and agreed to resume the peace talk meetings. This was realized by the JTT meeting on 7 February 2018 , whereby the teams wrapped up the remaining issues of the Safety Zones .  It was just a matter of another two or three meetings ahead and both parties were ready to kick-start the SZ exercise in the agreed pilot district of Cho-Ai-Rong, in Narathiwat.

From 7-8 March 2018 the technical teams met again to discuss all the terms  : The General Framework for the Safety Zones(SZ), the establishment of the Safe House(SH) and the Formation of Joint Action Committee(JAC). Related to these agreements reached at the dialogue table was the release of three Patani Malay political prisoners prior to the implementation of the SZ.

The situation on the ground, however, did not reflect the cordial atmosphere and the trust building at the dialogue table in Kuala Lumpur. Violent incidences and unwarranted maneuvers  from both sides continue. Certain provocative moves and statements by then Forth Army Commander, Lt. General Piyawat Nakwanich, very much contradicted with what has been discussed and agreed upon at the table. That prompted Mara Patani's panel chief, Ustaz Shukri Hari, showed up in a media statement on 23 April 2018 to clarify the group's stance. It was widely covered by the Thai media (TV3, Thai BBC and Thai PBS ) and four other Malaysian news agencies( Bernama, Utusan Malaysia, Sinar Harian and TV3) . 

The last meeting between the two technical teams(JTT) was on 25 April 2018 . It was the final overview of the agreed SZ, SH, and JAC before being submitted to the main team, the Joint Working Group - Peace Dialogue Process(JWG-PDP),  for endorsement prior to full implementation of the SZ. Both sides  consented on the tentative inauguration date but could not agree on signing the agreement. The Thai side was not agreeable to signing the document . Their argument was that the process was still at the confidence building stage, therefore the signing of any document is unnecessary .

 Mara Patani, on the other hand, opined  that the signing of the agreement is mandatory since it involves certain sensitive issues like legal, security and safety protection for its members who will participate in the SZ exercise. Without signing the document there is no guarantee for them. The meeting ended in a stalemate. Both sides eventually agreed to let the JWG-PDP make the final decision in a meeting schedule in early May 2018.

That did not materialize. The 9th May Fourteenth Malaysian General Election saw the landslide victory of the Coalition of Hope led by the former Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamed, over the incumbent National Front under the leadership of Najib Razak. As far as the peace dialogue process is concerned, any political changes in both Malaysia and Thailand will have an impact on  the process in one way or another. This was true when the Thai military toppled the civilian government of Premier Ying Luck in 2014, and now the unexpected change of government in Malaysia  would probably have some effects on the process. 

When  the dust has settled  Mahathir  terminated Mr. Zamzamin's contract . The ex-Inspector General of Police , Tan Sri Rahim Noor was  named the new facilitator in early August 2018, amidst the protests by some Malaysian politicians and Patani activists , based on his previous 'unfavorable' record in Malaysian politics some twenty years ago.

Tan Sri Rahim Noor, now at 75, is a no-stranger to Thailand. Being the Malaysian top security officer at one time, he had an excellent working relationship with his counterparts in Bangkok. He was  notably known for his significant role in the Thailand mediated  Malaysia - Communist Party of Malaya(CPM) peace talk that brought an end to the communist struggle way back in 1989.

 In the complex situation as the southern conflict, whether the Tan Sri could outperform his predecessor as the facilitator of the dialogue process remains to be seen . While Mr. Zamzamin was dubbed as Najib's man , the Tan Sri is no doubt a trusted person of Mahathir. However, he only has two years at his disposal. Mahathir has earlier agreed to hand over the helm to Anwar Ibrahim after two years. The animosity between Rahim Noor and Anwar Ibrahim in the previous Malaysian political landscape was  well-known .

Bangkok welcomed his appointment while uncertainty clouds over the status of its Chief Negotiator, General Aksra Kerdphol. Would he remain or be replaced too ? There were strong indications that some off-table communication was underway between Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok to determine the suitable person that can get along well with Rahim Noor. On 5 November 2018 General Prayut named  retired General Udumchai Thammasarorat , the ex- Forth Arm Commander , as the new Chief  Negotiator . There were some adjustments in the structure of its peace committee and a reshuffle of the team panels. 

Thus far, MARA Patani has had two  sessions with the new facilitator, an introductory and an exploratory meetings. The cards were being laid on the table and the ups and downs of the previous dialogues were thoroughly discussed. He made known his serious intention to facilitate the dialogue and  how he would do that in such a limited  time frame. 

As for MARA Patani , one of the problems that always haunts its components is the inclusiveness of the liberation movements. The BRN military wing has not formally joined the dialogue table, making the prospect for cease-fire difficult, if not impossible, to initiate. The proposed Safety Zones implementation   agreed upon at the last meeting in April 2018 was put on hold ( see : ).

 The  initiative and effort by the new facilitator to invite the remaining BRN to join the talk, making the inclusiveness 100 per cent, is ongoing. If they do come, then the scenario and the direction of the dialogue will be revised altogether. The process can walk across the confidence building stage to the next level.  A well-planned cease-fire is anticipated with an agreed road map for achieving  peace in the region being drafted by both parties . Then peace negotiation can kick start.

Again, that does not mean all is well. Until this moment the process is still put on hold while  the BRN has not made any concrete decision whether it is ready to come to the table this time around. The internal engagement is still ongoing within the ranks of liberation movements. The situation on the ground is not good either. There has been both widespread and  sporadic violent incidences from Songkhla down to Narathiwat, as the year closes. 

The much awaited Thai general election is less than two months ahead. Thailand politics is notably known for its uncertainty ,surprises and setbacks. Will the election be held as scheduled or could there be another "political accident" ? Will the peace talk be affected ?

We will have to wait and see what 2019 has in store for the peace dialogue process( Dialogue III).

Happy New Year.

Abu Hafez Al-Hakim 

 Spokesman -  MARA Patani

31 December 2018 / 23 Rabi'ul Akhir 1440 AH.