Thailand agrees to talks with southern Muslim rebels
By Siva Sithraputhran and Stuart Grudgings
KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 28 Reuters) - Thailand's government agreed on Thursday to start talks with a major Muslim rebel group, marking a breakthrough in efforts to end a worsening conflict in the country's south that has claimed over 5,000 lives since 2004.
The agreement, signed in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur by senior Thai security officials and members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group, opens the way for the first formal peace talks with rebels seeking autonomy or even a separate state in the south.
The officials gave no details on whether the deal to launch a "dialogue process" would be accompanied by a ceasefire, following an upsurge in violence there in recent months. There was also no immediate word on when any peace talks would be held.
Successive Thai governments and the military have made contact with various rebel groups and are believed to have held secret talks, but they have never had open discussions.
The talks follow a shift in Thailand's stance last year when it acknowledged the conflict's "political nature" for the first time after years of relying on military action that has steadily alienated majority Muslims in the southern provinces.
"This is a major milestone," said Anthony Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane's. "This is not just business as usual. This confers a level of legitimacy on the armed opposition in southern Thailand, from which realistically there is no going back."
Past efforts to end the conflict have led nowhere and the legitimacy of the new process could be thrown into doubt if some rebel factions respond with more attacks in coming weeks.
A peace process could also face institutional resistance from Thailand's military, which has 60,000 troops in the south enforcing a state of emergency. Continued...