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(October 9, 2018) Malaysia's new dynamic in the deep South - Kavi Chongkittavorn

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is coming to Thailand later this month to try and tamp down the festering violence in southern Thailand. As his return to power in May has rejuvenated his country's openness and democratisation, he offers a ray of hope to Thailand's future peace and stability.

After all, Thais still remember his famous pronouncement during his previous premiership when he visited southern Thailand in the 1980s and urged Thai-Malaysian citizens with dual nationalities to respect Thai laws.

This time around, he has already sent a strong signal to Thailand that within his promised two-year tenure he would like to assist his northern neighbour in ending the conflict in the troubled region.

His reasons are simple. First, it would help cement his legacy if he could end the violence that has claimed nearly 7,000 lives. Second, he only has until May 2020 to achieve this noble objective. Tentatively, he has six months to convince all concerned parties to come to the negotiating table and another six months to conclude an agreement.

Malaysia's appointment in August of Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Mohd Noor, the former police inspector-general, as the new chief facilitator of the southern peace talks was welcomed by the Thai government. He replaced Datuk Seri Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, who was chosen by the previous government as the go-between for the conflicting parties in the region.

Despite Mr Rahim's tarnished personal record under the Najib Razak government, Thai officials who used to work with Mr Rahim during the anti-communist campaign in the past three decades enthusiastically embraced his return. Lest we forget, he was involved with current prime minister-in waiting Anwar Ibrahim's black eye incident when he, as inspector-general, arrested and beat Mr Anwar in 1998.

Indeed, Mr Rahim's comeback has prompted the Thai side to respond to the so-called new dynamic of the two neighbours, which has been pushed forward by Dr Mahathir, who is determined to see permanent peace and prosperity in both southern Thailand and northern Malaysia.

Thailand also realises that now is a golden opportunity to end the 14-year conflict. The Thai government is about to set up a new negotiating team to work closely with Mr Rahim. Some old faces with good personal ties with Mr Rahim may resurface to ensure prompt and efficient engagement with their Malaysian counterparts.

Both sides are racing against time. If the peace process continues under Malaysia's new leadership, there is no guarantee the current efforts will be brought to fruition. Now their common task is very clear -- perpetrators of violence must be dealt with no matter where they shelter. The porous Thai-Malaysia border will be shut in the coming months to ensure none are hiding in the border area. Mr Rahim is familiar with many active insurgents from head-to-toe, especially where they hide out. A special Thai team will be in Kuala Lumpur in the coming days to discuss details of the peace plan ahead of Dr Mahathir's trip to Bangkok.

Thailand and Malaysia's once dynamic bilateral relations are sadly underdeveloped and underrated because of the troubles in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat. That helps explain why bilateral trade and investment from the two countries have not reached their full potential. Average bilateral trade in the last five years stood at US$23 billion, a pittance considering Malaysia's trade with other economies. Malaysia is Thailand's fourth-largest trading partner. But seamless bilateral trade remains a pipe-dream even though both countries have pledged to facilitate trade to Singapore via Malaysia and to Laos and other countries via Thailand.

Thailand's newly announced economic zones along other parts of its border, including southern Thailand, have been promoted throughout, but the southern zone has not achieved much. Senior officials from both countries have met regularly to discuss the ways and means to promote connectivity and investment. But their talks were pleasant yet empty due to a deficit of mutual trust that neither side wants to grapple with. Cross-border trade still makes up three-quarters of their trade.

Stopping the trafficking of humans and goods, as well as corruption across the common border, would help with the peace process and make it more sustainable.

One positive development in Thai-Malaysian relations is the number of Malaysian tourists. Last year, that figure nearly reached 3.5 million, second only to Chinese tourists. Just 1.8 million Thais visited Malaysia last year.

Despite this lack of attention, Thailand has been the prime supporter of Malaysia's diplomatic and development policies, especially its vision for 2020 which posits as a developed country.

However, Thai officials often complain about a lack of sincerity from the Malaysian side when issues in the South are concerned, especially at international forums like the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. It is an open secret that Thailand has been a strong supporter of the Global Movement of Moderates (GMM), Malaysia's initiative to reject all forms of extremism. Bangkok thought the GMM concept, as an Asean agenda, would help promote inter-faith dialogue and better unify the Asean Community. Under the Mahathir government, the GMM framework is undergoing a review.

Now that Malaysia has shown its intention to end the violence in southern Thailand, it is incumbent on the government to respond in kind.

From the Thai side, retired generals and vested interest groups could derail the peace talks if their benefits are hampered. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha must display strong leadership, especially in reducing human trafficking and modern slavery, by reassigning corrupt officials and prosecuting those who transgress.

The Thai side must get its house in order to ensure both sides can synchronise their efforts to end the conflict within a year.