BANGKOK - Thailand signed Thursday, February 28, the first-ever peace deal with a separatist group to end a decades-long conflict in the Muslims-majority south.
"Thank Allah we will do our best to solve the problem, Hassan Taib, the liaison officer of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group, said in statements cited by Reuters.
We'll tell our people to work together to solve the problem.
The agreement was signed in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, by Thai government representatives and Taib of the Muslim group.
The deal paves the way for the first formal peace talks between the government and separatists to solve the decades-long conflict in the Muslims-majority south.
Malaysian premier Najib Razak said peace talks will begin within two weeks between the Thai government and Muslims to solve the south conflict.
It is not yet clear if the peace talks would be accompanied by a ceasefire, following an upsurge in violence in the south in recent months.
The BRN, which in Malay means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of several shadowy groups fighting for the secession of the south.
It remains to be seen whether other groups will fall in line.
Thailand has a Muslim population of about 9.5 million, many of whom live in rural areas.
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of discrimination under the heavy-handed practices by the military.
They have also called for Malay to become an official language and to replace the Buddhist-centric school curriculum with one less hostile to Muslim sensitivities.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost eight years ago.
Analysts say that the deal gives legitimacy to Muslim separatists in the south.
"This is a major milestone," Anthony Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane's, told Reuters.
"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."
The peace talks follow a shift in Thailand's stance last year when it acknowledged the conflict's "political nature" for the first time after years of relying on military action that has steadily alienated majority Muslims in the southern provinces.
Successive Thai governments and the military have made contact with various separatist groups and are believed to have held secret talks, but they have never had open discussions.
Past efforts to end the conflict have led nowhere and the legitimacy of the new process could be thrown into doubt if some separatist factions respond with more attacks in coming weeks.
Leeds University researcher Duncan McCargo opines that the deal was a welcome sign that Thailand recognizes the need for a political solution.
But he noted various back-channel talks have already been held with little coherence or progress.
"Under the circumstances, the latest news needs to be viewed with considerable caution," he told Agence France-Presse (AFP).Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.