Thailand and one of several rebel groups in the country's Muslim south will open talks in Kuala Lumpur in two weeks to try to end a bloody insurgency, Malaysia's prime minister said Thursday.
Najib Razak disclosed the news after talks with visiting Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, and following a deal signed earlier in the day by Thailand and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group to launch a peace process.
Yingluck said Thailand "wished to see a lasting solution in the southern border provinces", where the nine-year revolt by a number of shadowy groups has claimed more than 5,500 lives.
"We need to move forward as soon as possible," she told a news conference in the Malaysian government headquarters of Putrajaya.
Yingluck is in neighbouring Muslim-majority Malaysia for annual talks with Najib on bilateral issues. They have centred this year on the stubborn insurgency along the two countries' border.
Many residents of Thailand's southernmost provinces are Muslim ethnic Malays who resent being governed by the Buddhist Thais. The region sees near-daily gun and bomb attacks by insurgents seeking greater autonomy, which Thailand rejects.
The agreement to launch peace talks was signed in Kuala Lumpur early Thursday by Lieutenant-General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, and Hassan Taib, a representative of the BRN.
However, analysts poured water on suggestions the news marked a breakthrough, noting the splintered nature of the insurgents, lack of concrete demands, and Thailand's difficulty finding people who speak for fighters on the ground.
The BRN, whose Malay name means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of the larger groups blamed by Thailand for the violence, but it remains to be seen whether others will fall in line.
Thailand is "willing to engage in the process of inclusive dialogue with all relevant stakeholders and groups concerned to address root causes of the problem," Yingluck said.
Neither leader gave a date for the talks. A Malaysian official said the meetings would deal initially with determining "terms of reference" for going forward, adding it was hoped other groups would join in later.
"Let us all hope and pray that this series of dialogues that will begin in two weeks' time in Kuala Lumpur will bring the desired results," Najib said.
Marc Askew, an expert on southern Thailand at the University of Melbourne, said there was little evidence that "self-appointed" representatives of various groups exercise control over militants waging the revolt.
"The challenge remains the same as always -- to connect with the fighting insurgents, not just the talkers," he told AFP.
Leeds University researcher Duncan McCargo said past back-channel talks have been held between Thai authorities and various rebel representatives, with little coherence or progress.
"Under the circumstances, the latest news needs to be viewed with considerable caution," he said.
Paradorn had acknowledged on Wednesday that Thailand was still working on identifying militant leaders to negotiate with.
Malaysia already hosts negotiations between the Philippines and Muslim separatists in the south of that country. These resulted in October in a landmark agreement aimed at burying a decades-long insurgency there.
Thailand annexed its Muslim-majority border region in 1902.
Since then, rebellion has flared sporadically, with the current phase nine years old.
Analysts say successive Thai governments have comprehensively failed to address the insurgency's root causes.
Thailand says about 9,000 militants operate from highly autonomous village-level cells. The militants have improved their capacity to launch major attacks and are increasingly well organised, aggressive and ruthless.
There is, however, scant evidence of any links to wider Jihadist networks.