- Thai officials, Muslim rebels agree to hold talks over insurgency
- Muslim separatists are have been calling for an independent state
- About 5,300 people have been killed and more than 9,000 injured
- Thai officials say talks could begin in Malaysia with in two weeks
A little reported insurgency that has claimed the lives of more than 5,000 people in the last decade showed signs of moving towards a peaceful resolution Thursday, as Thai authorities agreed to hold talks with Muslim rebels in the restive south of the country.
The head of Thailand's National Security Council, Lt. General Paradon Phatthanatabutr, told CNN "a general consensus on the peace dialogue process" had been agreed with Hassan Taib, the leader of separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), following a meeting in Malaysia -- which is playing the role of "facilitator" in the discussions, he added.
"It is a good start, at least we can now talk," said Paradon. "It will certainly open doors to those who don't always share the extreme ideology to come out and start talking with us. Then we can build understanding with each other."
Paradon said the talks could begin in Malaysia within two weeks, and that they will show the international community that the Thai government is trying to solve the conflict by peaceful means, respecting due process.
Nine years of drive-by shootings, bomb blasts and beheadings have left thousands dead or maimed in Thailand's southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat, Satun and Songkhla, as insurgents fight for a separate Islamic state for the region's 1.8 million Muslim ethnic Malays -- a demand that Bangkok has so far rejected.
As a result, the Thai government has sent more than 150,000 soldiers to the region -- which was once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until it was annexed by Thailand, then known as Siam, in 1909 -- to protect it from the estimated 3,000 to 9,000 rebel fighters, according to estimates from human rights groups.
But analysts say the Thai military has struggled to deal with the militants.
"Insurgents have withstood and adapted to the military's tactics, growing more proficient and daring in the process," the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that provides analysis and advocacy on conflicts around the world, said in December.
Successive Thai governments "have opted to muddle through South East Asia's most violent internal conflict," the group added in a report on the conflict, citing "bureaucratic turf battles and a bitter national-level political struggle."
The region has seen a recent upsurge in violence, with increasingly bold attacks by rebels. Last month, 16 insurgents armed with laser-guided rifles and hand grenades were killed during a night assault on a military base in Narathiwat. The military managed to repel the attackers after receiving a tip about the raid, a spokesman for the Thai military told CNN.
The military was not so fortunate days earlier when five soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb in neighboring Yala province.
However, Thursday's agreement in Kuala Lumpur was met with cautious optimism.
"It shows that this government is not only using the military but also engaging with insurgent leaders," said Sunai Phasuk, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch.
But he warned that Thai authorities must also address important grievances on the ground, including accusations of security forces acting with impunity, for talks to be meaningful.