KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) – The key rebel group behind a 16-year insurgency in Thailand’s south has met the kingdom’s head negotiator for the first official meeting in their peace talks.
Observers see the dialogue as the best hope of ending a conflict which has left thousands dead in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces.
The region has been in the grip of a simmering insurgency since 2004. The main rebel group believed to be behind the guerrilla attacks – the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) – has long refused peace talks with Thai officials.
They claim to be fighting for independence after Thailand annexed the three southern provinces – Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat – over a century ago.
But this week marked a warming in relations as the two sides held their first official meeting on Monday, with Malaysia as a facilitator.
The BRN said in a statement on Tuesday that after years of back-channelling the two parties had agreed to “resolve armed conflicts by means of political resolution”. Thailand’s National Security Council also released a statement saying they are “ready to work with every stakeholder”.
The rebel group has long insisted the talks be overseen by international mediators, which the Thai state has staunchly opposed, bringing the negotiation process to a stuttering halt in 2014.
Since then, only MARA Patani – an umbrella organisation representing other insurgent factions – has taken part, and progress has been slow.
In the meeting, the Head of Thailand’s Peace Dialogue Panel Wanlop Rugsanaoh, head of Thailand’s Peace Dialogue Panel and BRN representative Anas Abdulrahman clasped hands with former Malaysian Police Inspector General Abdul Rahim Noor in the middle.
“They have agreed to resolve the issues through peace and not to fight. It can be done,” Abdul Rahim Noor told AFP late Tuesday. The two sides agreed another meeting will be held next month, he added.