Thailand formally agreed to start peace talks for the first time with a key militant group operating in Muslim-majority southern provinces that border Malaysia, which will help broker the discussions.
“We seek a long-lasting solution in southern Thailand, including finding the root cause and an end to violence,” Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra told reporters today in Putrajaya, Malaysia’s administrative center near Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called the agreement “merely the starting point of a long process.”
The talks between Thailand’s government and representatives of the Revolution National Front, known as BRN, will begin in two weeks and take place in Malaysia, Najib said. His government arranged talks between the Philippines and a Muslim rebel group that produced a peace deal last year.
The decades-long push for an independent state in four Thai provinces bordering Malaysia has killed more than 5,000 people since flaring up in 2004, when Yingluck’s brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, led the country. The insurgency has stifled investment in the south, where 14 provinces account for about 80 percent of Thailand’s rubber production.
“This is not time to break out champagne and declare an end to the conflict, but it marks a very major step forward,” Anthony Davis, a Bangkok-based analyst at security publisher IHS Jane’s, said by phone. “It opens the way to a process of acknowledged talks that may lead to an amelioration of the conflict, to a lessening of violence.”
The two sides signed an agreement to begin discussions earlier today in Kuala Lumpur, with Ustaz Hassan Taib representing the rebels and Pharadorn Phatthanatabutr, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Thailand, attending on behalf of the government. Before her 2011 election victory, Yingluck said she would consider devolving power to locals in the south in a special administrative zone.
Informal talks have taken place in the past between senior members of Thailand’s government and military, and representatives of separatist groups, according to Davis. The “overwhelming majority of armed elements in the south are almost certainly BRN-affiliated,” he said.
Thai marines killed at least 17 insurgents on Feb. 13 as they repelled an attack on a base in Narathiwat province by 50 guerrillas dressed in military-style uniforms. Since 2004, separatists have been implicated in the deaths of more than 150 teachers and education personnel, who they view as symbols of government authority and Buddhist culture, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in December.
Rebel attacks are growing more sophisticated even as the government spends billions of dollars, uses special security laws and deploys 60,000 personnel to stop them, the International Crisis Group said in December. A resolution requires adjusting the military’s approach and decentralizing power to give local leaders more control, the group said.
Separatists have fought for an independent state in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and part of Songkhla province since Thailand formally annexed the autonomous Malay-Muslim sultanate in 1902. About 95 percent of Thailand’s 67 million people are Buddhist.
Bangkok and Pattaya, a resort town on the Gulf of Thailand, are the only localities to have direct elections for their leaders. The two cities command a budget that’s almost equal to the allocation for all of Thailand’s other provinces, whose governors are appointed by the Interior Ministry.