KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Thai authorities and Muslim separatist leaders started peace talks on Thursday aimed at ending almost a decade of unrest in the country's far south, as a new attack by suspected militants killed three Thai soldiers.
The secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, Lt. Gen. Paradorn Pattanathabutr, said he was "very happy" with the first meeting with the rebels led by the National Revolution Front, also known by the acronym BRN, and the Pattani United Liberation Organization, or PULO.
"We share the same goal, which is to reduce violence in the region. Both sides have agreed that we want peace in the area," Paradorn told reporters after a daylong meeting facilitated by Malaysia.
Violence has occurred nearly every day in Thailand's Muslim-dominated 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, who are seen 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 by the central government in Bangkok, and the insurgents are thought to be fighting for autonomy. But the insurgency remains murky, with militants making no public pronouncements on their goals.
Paradorn said the rebels were asking Thai authorities to provide justice to the insurgents although he declined to give more details of their request.
The Thai authorities were also pushing for the militants to designate areas that could be free from attacks.
"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 ahead of Thursday's meeting.
The Thai government inked an agreement to start talks with BRN last month in Malaysia during a visit by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra. Malaysia, which borders Thailand's restive southern provinces, is acting as a facilitator to bring some of the insurgents to peace talks. The insurgents are ethnic Malays and speak a variant of the Malay language.
Paradorn led a nine-member delegation to Thursday's talks.
The Thai government and military have struggled to identify legitimate participants for the peace process, as the militant leadership is not clear and no groups have stepped out to take responsibility for the attacks. The insurgency is believed to be highly decentralized, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns.
The BRN is one of several separatist movements that have made public calls for a separate state in Thailand's south.
"I insist that the BRN movement is unified but it will take some time for them to relay the message to members in the area," Paradorn said.
Just hours before the talks started, suspected militants killed three soldiers in a roadside attack in Narathiwat province.
Police Col. Suchart Sa-eed said militants detonated an improvised bomb 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.
The next round of talks is scheduled for April 29.