Thailand signs peace talks deal with Muslim rebels

Secretary General of Thailand's National Security Council Paradorn Pattanatabutr and rebel leader Hasan Taib shake hands in Kuala Lumpur (28 Feb 2013) Full details of the agreement have not yet been made public

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Thailand's government has signed its first-ever peace talks deal with Muslim rebels aimed at ending a decades-long conflict in the south.

The deal was signed in Malaysia by the National Revolution Front (BRN), one of several groups operating in Thailand.

More than 5,000 people have been killed since the conflict reignited in the Muslim-majority region in 2004.

The deal came ahead of a meeting in Kuala Lumpur between Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Thai PM Yingluck Shinawatra.

Speaking after their talks, Ms Shinawatra said the talks should "move forward as soon as possible", AFP reports.

She said Thailand was "willing to engage in the process of inclusive dialogue with all relevant stakeholders and groups concerned to address root causes of the problem... within the framework of the constitution".

Mr Najib said the "series of dialogues" would be held in Kuala Lumpur "in two weeks' time".

Malaysia has been acting as a facilitator for the negotiations between the Thai government and the Muslim rebels and is likely to host any peace talks.

Full details of the deal and a timeframe for talks have yet to be released.

'Do our best'


Many attempts have been made before to start talks between the Thai government and the Muslim insurgents fighting in the far south of the country - most were half-hearted, and all failed.

What is different this time is that the two sides have signed an agreement to begin negotiations, and that it is being launched very publicly by the prime ministers of Thailand and Malaysia.

That commits both sides to stick to the process - for the first time, the insurgents have been given recognition by the Thai state, and their demands can be heard and discussed.

This breakthrough follows an abortive raid by a large group of insurgents on a Thai military base earlier this month, in which 16 of them were killed.

The incident appears to have shaken the Thai government into reaching out to the insurgents, rather than retaliating for the raid with force.

However this is still just the start of a process that is untested and could stumble on many issues.

The BBC's Jonathan Head in Bangkok says that while attempts have been made before to launch a peace process, this is the first time both sides have committed to doing so in writing.

However, he adds that it is only a first step, noting the splintered nature of the insurgency and the possibility that the various rebel leaders may limited influence over their fighters on the ground.

The secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council Paradorn Pattanatabutr, who signed the deal, said it was "another attempt by the government to tackle the unrest" and did not mean an immediate end to the conflict, Bangkok Post reports.

Hassan Taib, who signed the document for the BRN, told reporters: "We will do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together to solve the problems."

BRN, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional in Malay, is just one of several rebel groups in the south.

The rebels in mostly Muslim southern provinces are fighting for greater autonomy from Buddhist-majority Thailand and carry out almost daily gun and bomb attacks against civilians and security forces.

Malaysia also brokered a framework peace agreement between the Philippines and its largest Muslim rebel group last year.

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