Thailand, rebel group agree to seek peace talks

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KUALA LUMPUR: Thailand signed its first-ever public agreement with a rebel group in its Muslim-majority south on Thursday, pledging to work toward peace talks aimed at ending a festering insurgency.

The potentially historic pledge was signed in Kuala Lumpur between Thai  officials and a representative of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel  group hours before a visit to Malaysia by Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra.

Yingluck was to meet later in the day with her host, Malaysian Prime  Minister Najib 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.

However, experts warned against viewing the agreement as a breakthrough,  noting the splintered nature of the Muslim insurgents, lack of concrete  demands, and Thailand’s difficulty identifying figures with authority to  negotiate.

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, identified as the
“chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia,” told reporters.No text of the agreement was handed out and officials otherwise offered  little comment.

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.

Marc Askew, an expert on southern Thailand at the University of Melbourne,  said there was little evidence that “self-appointed” representatives of the  various groups exercise any control over hardened militants on the ground.

“The challenge remains the same as always — to connect with the fighting  insurgents, not just the talkers,” he told AFP.

Leeds University researcher Duncan McCargo said the deal was a welcome sign  that Thailand recognises the need for a political solution.

But he noted various back-channel talks have already been held with little  coherence or progress. “Under the circumstances, the latest news needs to be viewed with  considerable caution,” he said.

Paradorn had acknowledged on Wednesday that Thailand was still establishing  the authority of militant leaders to negotiate.

Thailand’s southernmost provinces suffer almost daily gun and bomb attacks  by shadowy insurgents seeking greater autonomy, which Thailand rejects. Many residents of southern Thailand are Muslim ethnic Malays who resent being governed by the Buddhist Thais.

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. -- AFP


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