BANGKOK — Thailand opened informal peace talks Thursday with separatist representatives. The meeting marks a major breakthrough after nine years of sectarian violence in the largely Muslim southern provinces. Analysts and Muslim leaders hope that, despite ongoing attacks, the talks may lead to a decline in bloodshed.
The talks in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur followed months of background diplomacy between the Thai and Malaysian governments, in a bid to end years of bloodshed in Southern Thailand.
The Thai delegation of 15 representatives, which included human rights groups, held informal talks with up to nine Muslim separatist groups led by the National Revolutionary Front, known by its Thai acronym-BRN, as well as another key group, known as PULO.
Thai delegation leader, National Security Council Secretary General Paradon Pattanathabutr, says the initial aim is to reduce levels of violence in the provinces.
Paradon says the BRN - seen as the main group - may help reduce the violence using its influence to talk with other armed groups. But, he adds it will take time to reduce the numbers of incidents.
The peace talks are the first between the Thai state and several insurgent groups since violence re-emerged in 2004 and has since claimed more than 4,000 lives.
Although Thailand is largely Buddhist, the provinces of Yala, Pattan, and Narathiwat, are majority Muslim populations. Thailand annexed the region from Malaysia in 1902.
After authorities announced the talks, earlier this month, other separatist fighters have stepped up attacks. On Thursday, a roadside bomb in Narathiwat province killed three Thai army rangers and seriously wounded five others. It remains unclear how much influence the militant groups participating in the talks have with those who are not.
Chulalongkorn University political scientist Panitan Wattanayagorn says the talks are a first step in a longer process towards formal negotiations.
“This first step will take some time. In particular, the Thai public is hoping that the representative from the groups like the BRN, PULO will show their good intentions in particular in terms of not pushing for the separatist state or not pushing for the armed struggle. In return the Thai officers can somewhat guarantee the commitment of the process,” Wattanayagorn stated.
Panitan says the next round of talks is expected to take place in Thailand. He says there is a broad political commitment among Thai authorities to move the talks forward in the months ahead.
The talks followed lobbying by former Thai leader Thaksin Shinawatra with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. Thaksin, who remains overseas to avoid a jail term for corruption, is a key decision maker behind the government of his sister Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The rebel representatives are believed to be requesting concessions including a withdrawal of Thai army troops, amnesty for the fighters and for the provinces to be granted autonomy.
Prakorn Preeyakorn, president of the Islamic Center of Thailand, says the demand for greater autonomy is a key issue.
“The movement by the opposite side to the state just want to have their identity and have liberties in having their language [taught] in schools apart from the need to have specific local autonomy," said Preeyakorn. "I see this is the movement of decentralization. But they don’t really want to separate from the Thai state.”
Thailand’s security forces and army have ruled out moves to grant greater autonomy or self-rule. The army, with 60,000 troops in the region, has past opposed reductions in troop numbers, in a bid to ease local tensions.
Officials say further talks are planned after the National Security Council officials and representatives from both BRN and PULO agree to the terms.