Thailand's government on Thursday signed an agreement with a rebel group in its south. The potentially historic deal was signed in Kuala Lumpur between Thailand's officials and a representative of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional rebel group ahead of a visit to Malaysia by Thailand's Premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
Yingluck was to meet later in the day with her host, Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak, for annual talks set to include the nine-year insurgency and the possibility of Malaysia hosting future Thailand's negotiations with the militants.
There has been a recent spike in attacks along Thailand's border with Malaysia, where the nine-year insurgency has claimed more than 5 500 lives.
The "general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace" was signed by Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, and Hassan Taib of the rebel group.
"Thank Allah we will do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together to solve the problems," Hassan told reporters after the ceremony.
Hassan was identified as the "chief of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional liaison office in Malaysia".
Fighters on the ground
Officials involved in the ceremony otherwise offered little comment on the agreement and a text of the pledge was not handed out.
Barisan Revolusi Nasional, which in Malay means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of several groups blamed for the unrest in Thailand.
It remains to be seen whether other groups will fall in line behind the Front.
The <em>Guardian</em> reported on its site on Thursday violence in Thailand's south ranged from beheadings and roadside bombings to teacher shootings in Buddhist schools. It is believed security forces and teachers are singled out as they represent Thailand's Buddhist government but the daily violence prompted some locals to turn against the insurgents.
Thailand's south was an independent Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Buddhist-majority Thailand in the early 20th century. Muslims living there have long complained of discrimination by the government in Bangkok. Anger towards the government flared up in October 2004 when the army arrested scores of Muslim men, tied them up and piled them on top of each other in trucks, where 78 of them suffocated, the <em>Guardian</em> reported.
Prospects for peace have been dogged by the complex make-up of the insurgency and doubts persist over the level of control that older, exiled leaders known to Thailand's authorities exert over the younger fighters on the ground.
On Wednesday, Paradorn said in Bangkok that he hoped peace talks could start "soon", with Malaysia providing the venue.
Thailand's southern-most provinces suffer almost daily gun and bomb attacks by shadowy insurgents fighting for greater autonomy, a demand the country's authorities have rejected. – AFP