Thailand's government signed a breakthrough deal with Muslim insurgents for the first time ever yesterday, agreeing to hold talks to ease nearly a decade of violence in the country's southern provinces that has killed more than 5,000 people.
The agreement between Thai authorities and the militant National Revolution Front, also known by its Malay-language initials, BRN, was announced in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.
It is seen as a positive step, but is unlikely to immediately end the conflict because several other shadowy guerilla movements also fighting in southern Thailand have yet to agree to talks.
"God-willing, we'll do our best to solve the problem. We will tell our people to work together," Hassan Taib, a Malaysia-based senior representative of the BRN, said after a brief signing ceremony with Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who met with his Thai counterpart, Yingluck Shinawatra, later yesterday, said Thai officials and the insurgent representatives would hold their first meeting in Malaysia within two weeks. Najib described the signing as "merely the starting point of a long process" because many issues have to be resolved, but added that it was a "solid demonstration of the common resolve to find and establish an enduring peace in southern Thailand".
Yingluck said talks would be conducted "within the framework of the constitution" of Thailand to address the root causes of the unrest.
"I have to say we are seeing a better direction in solving the problem, and I consider it a good start," she said after meeting with Najib.
"We need to move forward as soon as possible."
The first round of talks will focus on how both sides can co-operate, said Mohamed Thajudeen Abdul Wahab of Malaysia's National Security Council.
Violence has occurred nearly every day in Thailand's three southernmost provinces since the insurgency erupted in 2004.
Muslims in the border 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.
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 daily attacks in recent years.
The insurgency is believed to be highly decentralised, with local units having the freedom to choose targets and campaigns.
"This is a welcome development," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University in Thailand. "Not only that it is the first time the Thai government recognised the status of a separatist group, but also the process has included Malaysia as the facilitator of the talks."