The Thai government agreed Thursday to hold peace talks with a major rebel group in what analysts said was a tentative but hopeful sign that tensions may ease in an insurgency in southern Thailand that has left 5,000 people dead.
The agreement between a representative of the rebel group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, and Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary general of Thailand's National Security Council, was signed in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The Thai news media reported that the actual talks would begin in two weeks.
"This was just talks to have talks," said Sunai Phasuk, an expert on the southern insurgency with Human Rights Watch in Thailand. "But it's a very important public commitment. It's a courageous decision."
Numerous attempts at negotiations with rebels by Thai security agencies have foundered in recent years, but analysts said that this time they were encouraged by the presence of a senior figure from the rebel group, Hassan Taib, at the ceremony in Kuala Lumpur.
The talks appear to have the backing of the Malaysian government, which has sought to project an image of regional peacemaker in recent years by helping broker separate deals between rebel groups and the Philippine and Indonesian governments.
Thursday's agreement comes after a spate of bombings by insurgents in southern Thailand and a failed attack on a Thai military base in February that left 16 insurgents dead.
In some ways southern Thailand appears ripe for a de-escalation of violence. The killing of teachers by insurgents -- more than 150 have been killed since 2004 -- has angered villagers and led to public criticism by Muslim groups.
But one potential stumbling block in the talks will be knowing with whom to negotiate. There are at least four major rebel groups and many factions and cells within them.
"The big trouble is to identify those who are in control," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok and a specialist on southern Thailand.
Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, an expert on southern Thailand, called the agreement a "major milestone" but warned that even if it succeeds, the negotiation process could take years. She noted that the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front in the southern Philippines began in 1996, and the parties reached agreement only last year. "There are still remaining sticking points," she said.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.