Published: Thursday February 28, 2013 MYT 11:43:00 AM
Updated: Thursday February 28, 2013 MYT 3:22:00 PM
Thailand, rebels sign first-ever agreement for peace talks
KUALA LUMPUR (AFP): Thailand's government on Thursday signed its first-ever agreement with a rebel group in its Muslim-majority south, pledging to work toward peace talks aimed at ending a festering insurgency.
The potentially historic deal was signed at the Police Training Centre (Pulapol) in Jalan Semarak here between Thai officials and a representative of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group ahead of a visit to Malaysia by Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra.
Yingluck was to meet later in the day with her host, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, for annual talks set to include the nine-year insurgency and the possibility of Malaysia hosting future Thai negotiations with the militants.
There has been a recent spike in attacks along Thailand's border with Muslim-majority 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 BRN.
"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 BRN liaison office in Malaysia."
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 shadowy groups blamed for the unrest in Thailand.
It remains to be seen whether other groups will fall in line behind the BRN.
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 Thai authorities exert over the younger - and more violent - fighters on the ground.
Duncan McCargo, a Leeds University researcher and expert on southern Thailand, called the "unusually high profile" deal a welcome sign that Thailand recognises a political solution is needed.
However, he noted that various back-channel discussions have been under way for years with little sign of a coherent strategy or progress.
"Under the circumstances the latest news needs to be viewed with considerable caution," he said.
Paradorn said on Wednesday it was important for "core militant leaders... active in mounting the violence" to be identified and involved in any talks, adding Thailand was still establishing the authority of militant leaders to negotiate.
A Malaysian official said more details of the agreement would be released later by Najib.
Thailand's southernmost provinces suffer almost daily gun and bomb attacks by shadowy insurgents fighting for greater autonomy, a demand Thai authorities have rejected.
Malaysia already hosts negotiations between the Philippine government and Muslim separatists in the south of that country which resulted in October in a landmark agreement aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency.