KUALA LUMPUR – Thailand signed its first-ever public agreement with a rebel group in its Muslim-majority south Thursday, pledging to work toward peace talks aimed at ending a festering insurgency.
The potentially historic pledge was signed in Kuala Lumpur by Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand’s National Security Council, and Hassan Taib, a Malaysian-based senior representative of the militant National Revolution Front (NRF).
The brief signing ceremony was held just hours before a visit by Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to meet her Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak.
No schedule was immediately given for future meetings, and the two sides did not elaborate about their plans. The text of the agreement, titled the “General Consensus Document to Launch a Dialogue Process for Peace,” was also withheld. Malaysian officials said details of the agreement would be made public after the two government leaders meet.
“God willing, we’ll do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together to solve the problem,” said Hassan, identified as the “chief of the NRF liaison office in Malaysia.”
Yingluck was scheduled to meet later in the day with her host, Razak, for annual talks set to include the nine-year insurgency and the possibility of Malaysia hosting future Thai negotiations with the militants.
Since the insurgency erupted in 2004, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces have suffered almost daily gun and bomb attacks by shadowy insurgents seeking greater autonomy, which Bangkok rejects. More than 5,500 people have been killed.
There has been a recent spike in attacks along the Thai border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, with security forces as well as teachers targeted by insurgents because they are seen as representatives of the government of Buddhist-dominated Thailand.
Muslim ethnic Malays in deep southern Thailand, which was an independent Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century, have long complained of discrimination by the central government in Bangkok. The militants are thought to be fighting for autonomy, but the insurgency remains murky, with no public pronouncements outlining its goals.
The insurgents are believed to be highly decentralized, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns. Malaysia is acting as a facilitator to bring some of the militants to peace talks, but it remains unclear who the actual leaders of the insurgency are.
In addition to the NRF, also known as Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani, another militant group, the Pattani United Liberation Organization, has made public calls for a separate state.
Despite the announced peace dialogue, experts warned against viewing the agreement as a breakthrough, noting the splintered nature of the insurgency, lack of concrete demands and Thailand’s difficulty identifying figures with authority to negotiate. On Wednesday, Paradorn of the National Security Council acknowledged that Thailand was still establishing the authority of militant leaders to negotiate.
Crucially, it also remains to be seen whether other groups blamed for the unrest will fall in line with the NRF.
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 said.
Duncan McCargo, a researcher at the University of Leeds in England, said the deal was a welcome sign that Thailand recognizes the need for a political solution. But he noted that 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,” McCargo said.