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Thai, Malaysian Leaders Seek Peace in Southern Thailand


Thailand's prime minister has met with Malaysian leaders and pledged to peacefully end an insurgency in Thailand's southern provinces. While there are signs of optimism over the peace initiative, bloodshed has continued in the area bordering Malaysia.

Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont wrapped up his meetings in Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia's leaders by saying he intended to talk with a wide range of people to end the insurgency in Thailand.

Since early 2004, a violent Muslim insurgency in the region bordering Malaysia has claimed more than 1,500 lives.

This week alone more than a dozen people have been killed - both Buddhists and Muslims.

Bringing an end to the violence has become a priority since army chief General Sondhi Boonyaratglin, himself a Muslim, took control of the government last month in a bloodless coup.

The new pledge to find a peaceful solution follows initiatives by former prime ministers, Malaysia's Mahathir Mohammad and Thailand's Anand Panyarachun, during the past year.

Mr. Mahathir has been quoted as saying that community leaders in southern Thailand think the stage has been set for talks between insurgent leaders and Thai authorities.

Somchai Homla-or from the Thai Law Society says that initiative laid the groundwork for talks.

"This has paved the good way for the government under General Surayud to follow," he said. "I really support this initiative and the talk or the dialogue between the two sides in order to bring peace to the southernmost provinces of Thailand."

There has been low-level contact between Thai military commanders and people close to the insurgency. But former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in the coup, rejected the idea of formal talks.

Pakorn Preeyakorn, secretary-general of the Islamic Center of Thailand, says the new effort stands in contrast to Mr. Thaksin's policy.

"During the time of the Thaksin government, the southern problem was mishandled by him, [he] took a hardline stance against the insurgents," he said. "People were abducted and killed, causing more anger and hardship against government officials."

Muslims account for a majority of the population in the three most southern provinces, although Thailand's overall population is overwhelmingly Buddhist.

There have been longstanding complaints of discrimination against Muslims in the provinces, which are among the country's poorest.

The recent violence has largely been blamed on radical Muslim groups influenced by teachings from the Middle East.

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