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Thailand's Army Chief Approves Talks with Muslim Insurgents in South

Thailand's army chief will work to open a dialogue with insurgent groups in Thailand's southern provinces. While welcoming the initiative, human rights groups say the army also must address grievances the area's Muslim population have because of discrimination and poverty.

General Sondhi Boonyaratglin on Thursday said he has agreed to talk with Muslim insurgents in the south, but did not say when they would be held.

Sondhi led the military council that took over the Thai government last month, ousting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Just weeks before the coup, the military leaders had called for a dialogue with the insurgents, but Prime Minister Thaksin dismissed the idea. His government had refused talks since the insurgency began nearly three years ago.

Nearly daily bombings and sectarian murders have claimed more than 1,500 lives in the south, most of them civilians, since 2004.

Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, says military officers in the south have been holding unofficial talks for some time, to open "channels of dialogue."

"I think that for these groups there should be certain channels to communicate with them or even certain programs or projects to protect them to bring them back, to give them justice, to give them protection and this is what is going on right now," said Panitan Wattanayagorn.

Thailand's southern provinces are home for most of the country's Muslim population. Most Thais are Buddhist and many residents of the three southern provinces - Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala - have long complained of discrimination and neglect by the central government.

An insurgent group, the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO, has welcomed the offer of talks.

PULO is one of several groups within an umbrella organization known as Bersatu. Thai intelligence officials blame much of the violence on the Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Pattani Coordinate - an offshoot of Bersatu.

Sunai Pasuk, the Thailand representative of the U.S. group Human Rights Watch, says the call for talks is important.

"We have for the first time a clear consent from the Thai authorities to engage in dialogue with the insurgent groups," said Sunai.

But Sunai points out it represents just a first step toward rebuilding trust between the government and Muslims, who have been angered by what many considered the heavy-handed policies of the Thaksin government.

"General Sondhi may want to expand their initial dialogue but without a direct address to the questions of injustice, unfairness, abuses, exploitation and impunity - the initiative may not be a new chapter of the situation in the South," said Sunai.

Over the past year, the Army has looked at new ways to improve relations with southern residents, including employment programs and local development projects.