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Thailand, rebel group agree to seek peace talks

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Thailand Thursday signed its first known agreement with a rebel group in its Muslim-majority south, pledging to work toward talks to end a deadly nine-year insurgency.

The potentially historic pledge was signed in Kuala Lumpur between Thai officials and a representative of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group, hours before Thai premier Yingluck Shinawatra arrived in Malaysia.

Yingluck is meeting Prime Minister Najib Razak for annual talks set to include the insurgency and the possibility of Malaysia hosting future Thai negotiations with the militants.

There has been a recent rise in attacks along Thailand's border with Muslim-majority Malaysia, where the revolt has claimed more than 5,500 lives.

However, experts warned against viewing the agreement as a breakthrough, noting the splintered nature of the Muslim insurgents, lack of concrete demands, and Thailand's difficulty finding people who have the authority to negotiate.

The "general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace" was signed by Lieutenant-General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, and Hassan Taib of the BRN.

"Thank Allah we will do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together to solve the problems," Hassan, identified as the "chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia", told reporters.

No text of the agreement was handed out and officials otherwise offered little comment.

Barisan Revolusi Nasional, which in Malay means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of several shadowy groups blamed for the unrest in Thailand. It remains to be seen whether other groups will fall in line.

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 told AFP.

Leeds University researcher Duncan McCargo said the deal was a welcome sign that Thailand recognises the need for a political solution.

But he noted various back-channel talks have already been held between Thai authorities and representatives of different rebel groups, with little coherence or progress.

"Under the circumstances, the latest news needs to be viewed with considerable caution," he said.

Paradorn had acknowledged on Wednesday that Thailand was still establishing the authority of militant leaders to negotiate.

Thailand's southernmost provinces suffer almost daily gun and bomb attacks by shadowy insurgents seeking greater autonomy, which Thailand rejects.

Many residents of southern Thailand are Muslim ethnic Malays who resent being governed by the Buddhist Thais.

Malaysia already hosts negotiations between the Philippine government and Muslim separatists in the south of that country. These resulted in October in a landmark agreement aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130228/thailand-rebel-group-agree-seek-peace-talks-0