Thailand's government signed a breakthrough deal with Muslim insurgents for the first time ever Thursday, agreeing to hold talks to ease nearly a decade of violence in the country's southern provinces that has killed more than 5,000 people.
(For background read The Christian Science Monitor's recent coverage on Why Bangkok struggles to bring peace to Thailand's 'Deep South.')
The agreement was announced in Malaysia's largest city, Kuala Lumpur, between Thai authorities and the militant National Revolution Front, also known by its Malay-language initials, BRN. It is seen as a positive step, but is unlikely to immediately end the conflict because several other shadowy guerrilla movements also fighting in southern Thailand have yet to agree to talks.
"God-willing, we'll do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together," Hassan Taib, a Malaysian-based senior representative of the BRN, said after a brief signing ceremony with Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who met with his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, later Thursday, said Thai officials and the insurgent representatives would hold their first meeting in Malaysia within two weeks.
The 'starting point'
Najib described the signing as "merely the starting point of a long process" because many issues have to be resolved, but added that it was a "solid demonstration of the common resolve to find and establish an enduring peace in southern Thailand."
Yingluck said talks would be conducted "within the framework of the constitution" of Thailand to address the root causes of the unrest.
"I have to say we are seeing a better direction in solving the problem, and I consider it a good start," she said after meeting with Najib. "We need to move forward as soon as possible."
The first round of talks will focus on how both sides can cooperate, said Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab of Malaysia's National Security Council.
Violence has occurred nearly every day in Thailand's three southernmost provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004. The militants have mainly targeted security forces and teachers, who are seen as representatives of the government of the Buddhist-dominated nation.
Muslims in the border region, which was an independent Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century, have long complained of discrimination by the central government in Bangkok, and the insurgents are thought to be fighting for autonomy. But the insurgency remains murky, with militants making no public pronouncements on their goals.
Paradorn said Thai security forces would continue to patrol the region.
"It's not unusual that there might be groups that disagree with the talks, so our military operations will continue. But the discussion will have to carry on at the same time," Paradorn told reporters in Bangkok on Wednesday before leaving for Malaysia.
He said fewer than 1,000 insurgents are living on the Malaysian side of the border. Most are ethnic Malays.
The Thai government and military have struggled to identify legitimate participants for the peace process, as the militant leadership is not clear and no groups have stepped out to take responsibility for the daily attacks in recent years. The insurgency is believed to be highly decentralized, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns.
The BRN is one of several separatist movements that have made public calls for a separate state in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south. It is unclear how many groups of insurgents the Thai authorities intend to bring in.
"This is a welcome development," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University in Thailand. "Not only that it is the first time the Thai government recognized the status of a separatist group, but also the process has included Malaysia as the facilitator of the talks, which will likely draw more participants in the peace process."
Other experts argue that bringing more insurgents to the negotiating table will not be easy.
"There are several groups who would like to talk to the Thai authorities, but they won't come out because the Thai government cannot guarantee their safety. What they want is amnesty, which the Thai government can't promise," said Panitan Wattanayagorn of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.
"The insurgents, too, will have to talk among themselves before making any decisions," he said. "So it is not clear that we will see a decline in the incidents in the near future."
Other groups fighting in southern Thailand include the Pattani United Liberation Organization, which has made public calls for a separate state.
In the past decade, Malaysia has also brokered negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines. (See Monitor story Is historical claim behind the mystery group in Borneo.)
That has so far resulted in a preliminary peace pact signed in October to grant minority Muslims in the southern Philippines broad autonomy in exchange for ending more than 40 years of violence that has killed tens of thousands of people and crippled development.
Malaysia's government has repeatedly said it wants to see a peaceful resolution to its neighbors' conflicts and has denied funding, arming or providing any other support to militants.
Doksone reported from Bangkok.