KUALA LUMPUR – Thailand Thursday held its first formal peace talks with a rebel group from its insurgency-racked south as a bombing killed three people in a stark reminder of the difficulties negotiators face.
Peace talks facilitated by Malaysia aim to end almost a decade of violence in Muslim-dominated provinces of southern Thailand.
Thai authorities and Muslim separatist leaders have opened peace talks aimed at ending almost a decade of unrest in the country’s far south, as a fresh attack by suspected militants killed three Thai soldiers.
Thailand blamed a Thursday morning bombing that killed three paramilitaries on militants seeking to sabotage the peace effort.
The secretary general of Thailand‘s national security council, Paradorn Pattanathabutr, said the first meeting with the rebels of the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), would focus on developing relationships and trust. The talks are being held in Malaysia.
There has been almost daily violence in Thailand’s three southernmost provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004, and more than 5,000 people have been killed. The militants have mainly targeted security forces and teachers, whom they see as representatives of the government of the predominantly Buddhist nation.
Muslims in the region, which was an independent Islamic sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century, have long complained of discrimination, and the insurgents are thought to be fighting for autonomy. The militants, however, have made no public pronouncements about their aims.
“I believe that today’s talks will lead to an atmosphere that yields solutions, or yields progress that would result in solutions. The main issues are to reduce the violence,” Paradorn said before the talks.
“I am confident that there will be communication and attempts to bring understanding, and BRN is a big movement that can relay that message. I believe they can send the message to the operative level. Then it will be concrete, but we have to give it some time,” he said.
The government agreed last month to start talks with BRN in Malaysia during a visit by the Thai prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Malaysia, which borders Thailand’s southern provinces, is acting as facilitator.
The Thai government and military have struggled to identify legitimate participants for the peace process, as the militants’ leadership is not clear and no groups have taken responsibility for the daily attacks in recent years. The insurgency is believed to be highly decentralised, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns.
Hours before the talks started, suspected militants killed three soldiers in a roadside attack in Narathiwat province. A police spokesman said the rebels detonated an improvised explosive device and opened fire at soldiers who were on foot patrol in Cho Airong district. He said five soldiers were wounded in the ambush, which took place in a village that is home to a key BRN leader.