Secretary-general of Thailand's National Security Council, Paradorn Pattanathabutr (centre L), shakes hands with chief of Thailand's National Revolution Front (BRN) liason office in Malaysia, Hassan Taib (centre R), as they exchange documents during the signing ceremony of the general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace in the border provinces of southern Thailand, in Kuala Lumpur February 28, 2013. REUTERS/Bazuki Muhammad

Secretary-general of Thailand’s National Security Council, Paradorn Pattanathabutr (centre L), shakes hands with chief of Thailand’s National Revolution Front (BRN) liason office in Malaysia, Hassan Taib (centre R), as they exchange documents during the signing ceremony of the general consensus document to launch a dialogue process for peace in the border provinces of southern Thailand, in Kuala Lumpur February 28, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/ThemesBazuki Muhammad

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 28 Reuters) – Thailand’s government agreed on Thursday to start talks with a major Muslim rebel group, marking a breakthrough in efforts to end a worsening conflict in the country’s south that has claimed over 5,000 lives since 2004.

The agreement, signed in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, by senior Thai security officials and members of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group, opens the way for the first formal peace talks with rebels in the south.

The document launches a “dialogue process” for peace in the southern border provinces.

Successive Thai governments and the military have made contact with rebel groups and claimed some success in tracking down key operatives but they have never openly held talks with the various militant groups that operate in the south.

“This is a major milestone,” said Anthony Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane’s. “This is not just business as usual. This confers a level of legitimacy on the armed opposition in southern Thailand, from which realistically there is no going back.”

Malaysia, which helped broker a peace deal between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in October, has brought the Thai rebel groups to the table and appears set to play a mediation role in the talks.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, are due to hold a joint news conference in Malaysia later on Thursday.

Thai authorities say the attacks in the south are organized by the BRN Coordinate, an offshoot of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front established in the 1960s to seek greater autonomy.

“We’ll do our best to solve the problem. We’ll tell our people to work together to solve the problem,” said Hassan Taib, who was described in the document as the BRN liaison officer for Malaysia.

Hassan is described as “a senior separatist figure” in a December 2012 report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think-tank.

The agreement follows an escalation of violence in recent months. Sixteen insurgents were killed in an attack on a Thai marine base on February 13, with no loss of life among the marines. Rebels hit back with a string of counter-attacks including an explosion in Pattani province that killed two security volunteers.

Resistance to Buddhist rule from Bangkok has existed for decades in the predominantly Muslim provinces, waning briefly in the 1990s before resurfacing violently in January 2004.

(Reporting by Siva Sithraputhran; Additional reporting by Andrew Marshall and Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Bangkok.; Writing by Stuart Grudgings; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Alan Raybould)