Thailand has opened informal talks with leaders of Muslim separatist groups aimed at ending months of violence in the country's south. But divisions have appeared within the government over the meeting.
The talks between the Thai military and leaders of several separatist groups include Wan Kadir Che Man, head of the separatist umbrella organization Bersatu. Mr. Che Man - who has denied any involvement in the recent bloodshed in southern Thailand - offered to act as go-between with the militants.
The Thai government has struggled all year to calm the predominately Muslim south, where more than 300 people have been killed. The government says Muslim militants are fighting to break the region away from the rest of Thailand, which is largely Buddhist.
The talks have triggered divisions within the government. The Minister of Defense, General Chetta Thanajaro, confirmed the meetings had taken place although he refused to provide details. But Foreign Minister Surakiart Sathiarathai said Tuesday the government had no policy of talking with insurgents although secret talks by Thai security agencies may solve the violence.
The talks originally were to be held a month ago, but were delayed as the cabinet argued over the right approach. A government spokesman has said the talks are crucial to calming the south. He says there is no timetable for the talks, which he described as informal. A member of the Thai senate's foreign relations committee, Kraisak Choonhavan, says the meetings should be supported. "There is absolutely no harm whatsoever in discussing with them [the separatist groups], finding out what any new ideas they can offer and any things that would be useful," he says.
Militants have killed officials, police, Buddhist monks and civilians, while in a single attack, the police killed more than one hundred suspected separatists. Human rights groups have accused the government of heavy-handedness in seeking to quell the violence.
Earlier this week, 5,000 civil servants asked to be transferred out of the region, while local school teachers have been pressing for additional security.
The violence is the worst Thailand has faced since Muslim separatists halted a campaign in the 1980s after the government offered amnesty to the militants and stepped up security.