Some 160 teachers have been killed and many schools set ablaze in continuing ethnic violence.
Thailand’s government has agreed to start talks with a major Muslim rebel group, marking a breakthrough in efforts to end a worsening conflict in the country’s south that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2004.
The agreement was signed in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday between representatives of the Thai government and the National Revolution Front (BRN) rebels, ahead of talks between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak.
Yingluck was to meet later in the day her host, Malaysian prime minister, for annual talks set to include the nine-year unrest and the possibility of Malaysia hosting future Thai negotiations with the rebels.
“God-willing, we’ll do our best to solve the problem,” Hassan Tain, a Malaysian-based representative of the rebel group, said.
“We will tell our people to work together to solve the problem.”
BRN is one of several shadowy groups blamed for the unrest in Thailand. It remains to be seen whether other groups will fall in line.
Malaysian officials said details of the agreement would be made public after the two government leaders meet.
Malaysia’s northern states border Thailand’s southern provinces.
Successive Thai governments and the military have made contact with rebel groups and claimed some success in tracking down key operatives but they have never openly held talks with the various rebel groups that operate in the south.
Violence has occurred nearly every day in the country’s three southernmost provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004, killing thousands of people.
In recent weeks security forces as well as teachers have been targeted by rebels because they are seen as representatives of the government of the Buddhist-dominated nation.
Rebel groups have never clearly stated their demands, but they are thought to want more autonomy or a separate state in a region that was part of a Malay sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1909.
“This is the first step. The start of a peace dialogue with representatives from Muslim rebel groups,” Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC), told Reuters by phone from Kuala Lumpur.
Paradorn said earlier this week fewer than 1,000 rebels were living on the Malaysian side of the border.
The agreement follows an escalation of violence in recent months. Sixteen rebels were killed in an attack on a Thai
marine base on February 13, with no loss of life among the marines.
Malaysia, which helped arrange a peace deal between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in October, has brought
the Thai rebel groups to the table and appears set to play a mediation role in the talks.