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(October 23, 2018) Five facts on Mahathir's upcoming visit - Kavi Chongkittavorn

First of all, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's scheduled visit on Wednesday and Thursday will be historic, as he will have the opportunity to promote long lasting peace and prosperity in the Malay Peninsula. Kuala Lumpur's new strategic intent has created new opportunities for the advancement of Thai-Malaysian relations as never before seen. In addition, the new regional and international environment has also prompted countries in mainland Southeast Asia to adopt more proactive diplomacy in engaging neighbouring countries.

The return of the 93-year-old Dr Mahathir in May gave him a second chance to implement some of his past policies which remained unfulfilled. After years of democratic backsliding, the new Malaysia has opened up space for freedom of expression and other social space. Furthermore, a democratic nation would not support a separatist movement nor provide sanctuary for those from a neighbouring country.

After decades of focusing on the CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam) countries, Thailand has now turned its attention to increased border engagement and management with Malaysia. Recently, senior officials from both countries met to discuss numerous proposals to promote border trade as part of the Asean Economic Community and connectivity. But without substantial progress to pacify the troubled border, better economic prospects remain elusive. Furthermore, the lack of law and order along the porous border has been the cause of trafficking of arms, drugs, people and contraband. Better border management and resource allocation is the most urgent challenge both governments need to tackle.

Without lasting peace along Thai-Malaysian border, transnational challenges such as radicalism and extremism will be hard to contain. In the past few years, Malaysia has been facing various forms of extremism and radicalism. Kuala Lumpur is also concerned about the contagious effect of an unsecured border on both the peninsula, Sabah and Sarawak.

Truth be told, during the 22-year first reign of Dr Mahathir, Thai-Malaysian relations were correct but not as good as they should be, as the two neighbours were competing as newly industrialised economies. At the height of the Cold War, their relations were extremely good due to their common threat from communism. Thailand helped Malaysia to fight against the Communist Party of Malaya and defeat it three decades ago. It was the zenith of Thai-Malaysian friendship. At the time, a sense of déjà vu prevailed that Malaysia would respond in kind by helping Thailand to resolve the conflict in southern Thailand. That dream is still very much alive. That explains why the Thai side has welcomed Dr Mahathir's visit.

Secondly, there is the enduring personal relationship between Dr Mahathir and Thai statesman and former prime minister Gen Prem Tinsulanonda. During their tenures, both leaders engaged with one another in cooperative and competitive ways. During the 1980s, Thailand was the world's fastest growing economy, very much the envy of its neighbours. Malaysia was also a young tiger economy, focusing on modernisation of its economy and becoming a leading Muslim country. Both were key Asean members working together albeit with some disagreements to end the 13-year-old civil war in Cambodia. The Mahathir-Prem meeting this week would not stir up old schisms but create new impetus that would allow a new peace process in the South.

During the past decade, Thailand has been marred by domestic turmoil during the three successive governments of Abhisit Vejjajiva, Yingluck Shinawatra and Gen Prayut Chan-o-cha, while Malaysia has had a stable government under the one-party rule of the United Malays National Organisation. An absence of sustainable southern policies on the Thai side has prolonged the violence.

Thirdly, within Asean, Thai-Malaysian ties are the weakest due to the mutual mistrust engendered by the conflict in the three provinces of southern Thailand. It has been an embarrassing feature of the two founding members of Asean. This time around, judging from informal meetings between the two sides since May ahead of Dr Mahathir's visit, both sides have recognised that the peace process under the current circumstances would be "inclusive" with "participation from all stakeholders". That much is clear. It was former prime minister Gen Surayud Chulanond who first made the well-known statement in 2007 that any peace effort in the South must stem from a dialogue with all stakeholders. At this juncture, Thailand trusts that Malaysia would be able to convince all the parties in the conflict to take part in peace talks without any prejudice.

Fourthly, the time frame for the peace process is still uncertain. It is clear Dr Mahathir wants to leave a legacy after his two-year tenure, ending in May 2020 as he earlier pledged. Ending the conflict in the South requires a sustainable dialogue of all parties with tangible changes on the ground. The next election in Thailand, tentatively scheduled for Feb 24, holds out the prospect of a new civilian government. It remains to be seen how the new Thai government will approach the peace process. But for now, Thailand feels the time is right to go full throttle with Dr Mahathir's good faith.

Fifthly, Malay and Thai peace negotiators must adopt a new mindset, although they are old hands and know each other like the back of their hand. But deep down, both sides have still trust deficits. An often-asked question remains how far Thailand would like to engage Malaysia and vice versa. For now, Malaysia is content with a facilitating role. It is important the Malaysian team, led by Abdul Rahim Noor, and the Thai team, led by Gen Udomchai Thammasaroraj, have the time to work out deliverable action plans. If need be, Malaysia's role could be expanded as long as an end to the long-running conflict can be secured.