BANGKOK Thai authorities and separatist rebels could be inching towards talks after nine years of violence and the loss of more than 5,000 lives in Thailand's Muslim-dominated southern provinces bordering Malaysia.
Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is meeting her Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, in Kuala Lumpur on Thursday and may seek his help to make contact with rebel groups.
"There are insurgent groups operating within Malaysia and Thailand that want to talk to the Thai government," Paradorn Pattanathabutr, secretary-general of the National Security Council of Thailand (NSC), told Reuters.
"We want Malaysia to facilitate these talks."
The NSC brings together government ministers and officials charged with coordinating security matters with the military. In a 2012 paper it acknowledged a political dimension to the violence and proposed dialogue with the insurgents, but the military, which has a big presence in the south, is lukewarm.
"The military has had regular contact with Malaysia. We are not involved with the meeting on Thursday, because this is a government initiative," Udomchai Thammasarorat, commander of the Fourth Army in southern Thailand, told Reuters.
"Our military strategy is clear and we are making good progress towards resolving the conflict," he said.
Independent analysts see little evidence that the military is winning, despite its success in thwarting an attack on a marine base on February 13 in which 16 insurgents were killed, with no loss of life among the marines.
The rebels have hit back with a string of attacks. Two bombs on Saturday in Narathiwat province, about 1,150 km (715 miles) south of Bangkok, and a drive-by shooting in neighboring Pattani injured five people. An explosion in Pattani's commercial district on February 17 killed two security volunteers.
Yingluck has said she would discuss the southern unrest in Malaysia but government officials are not using the term "peace talks" and some senior ministers are opposed to such an idea.
Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobumrung ruled out negotiations with the insurgents, saying that "if insurgent groups come to us with conditions, we will not accept them".
The provinces were once part of an independent Malay sultanate before being annexed by Thailand in 1909.
Resistance to Buddhist rule from Bangkok has existed for decades, waning briefly in the 1990s before resurfacing violently in January 2004.
Buddhist monks, teachers and farmers have been singled out as targets in a conflict that has killed 5,300 people, according to Deep South Watch, which monitors the violence.
Thai authorities say the attacks in the south are organized by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) Coordinate, an offshoot of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front established in the 1960s to seek greater autonomy.
Some within the military and government remain suspicious of Malaysia, accusing it of providing a refuge for insurgents.
"It's encouraging that the Thai government is working seriously on establishing dialogue. But there are doubts about whether Malaysia can play a productive role as mediator," said Matthew Wheeler, a Southeast Asia analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Najib, facing a general election that has to be held by called by the end of April, could benefit from any move towards a settlement.
"For Najib, an agreement with Thailand could be presented as a major foreign policy achievement to show that the southern crisis can be resolved peacefully," said Sunai Phasuk of Human Rights Watch.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)