KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Muslim separatist negotiators will attempt to halt all violence in insurgency-plagued southern Thai provinces throughout the Islamic fasting month, a Malaysian official said Friday.
The pledge by the National Revolution Front is the biggest test so far of whether peace talks that began this year with the Thai government might yield substantive results.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in Buddhist-dominated Thailand's southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces since an Islamic insurgency erupted in 2004.
Rebel officials will try to curb all armed attacks and bombings through Aug. 18 as part of "a common understanding to work toward achieving a violence-free Ramadan," the Muslim holy month of fasting that began this week, said Ahmad Zamzamin Hashim, a Malaysian government representative facilitating the negotiations.
Ahmad Zamzamin said he was "optimistic" that the rebel representatives involved in the talks can eliminate violence, despite concerns that the insurgency appears to be highly decentralized, with local units free to choose targets and campaigns.
If violence abates in the weeks ahead, "it is proof that we can say to the whole world: There is light at the end of the tunnel," Ahmad Zamzamin told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's main city. "It is a steppingstone to whatever we want to achieve in the future."
Thai authorities, meanwhile, "will refrain from any aggressive actions with regard to the security problems caused by the southern unrest," said a statement issued by Ahmad Zamzamin's office.
Even though the pledges were not part of a signed or legally binding document, "any party that breaches, disrupts or sabotages this understanding will be considered a non-peace-loving side," Ahmad Zamzamin said.
Attacks have occurred almost daily in recent years, with the militants mainly targeting security forces and teachers, who are perceived as representatives of the government of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.
Thai National Security Council Secretary-General Paradorn Pattanathabutr told reporters in Bangkok that if an attack occurs, both sides must help to verify the origin of the problem through a coordinating team.
"I believe the incidents will decrease from last year because (the National Revolution Front) has strongly confirmed that they can communicate to the operation-level members to tone down the attacks," Paradorn said.
As a result of the peace talks, Thai authorities have agreed to reduce their raids in southern provinces, removed military operations personnel in some villages and replaced them with police officers and security volunteers to lighten the mood in the areas, Paradorn said. He insisted, however, that all safety measures remain tightened for civilians.
Associated Press writer Thanyarat Doksone contributed to this report from Bangkok.