Muslim rebel groups and the Thai government have signed an agreement in Malaysia, agreeing to peace talks.
The move marks a breakthrough in efforts to end a decades-long conflict in the South of Thailand that has claimed over 5,000 lives since 2004.
The agreement, signed between representatives of the Thai government and the National Revolution Front (BRN) rebels, came ahead of a meeting between Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her Malaysian counterpart Najib Razak.
Report: Thailand and rebels agree to peace talks (Al Jazeera, 28 February 2013)
Report: Yingluck, Najib to announce joint steps on South (AsiaOne, 28 February 2013)
While this is the first time open talks have been held, expectations of the outcome are tempered. Attempts by successive Thai governments and the military to hold talks in the past have all failed. It is also unclear whether other groups, apart from the BRN, will cooperate.
However, the assistance of Malaysia, who recently helped broker an agreement between Muslim rebels and the government of the Philippines, and the publicity surrounding the announcement by the prime ministers of both Thailand and Malaysia, suggests the talks should be taken seriously.
Late on Thursday, Mr Najib and Ms Yingluck made a joint statement on their effort to tackle the Southern unrest, and on their plans to seek greater bilateral cooperation between their two countries.
The leaders agreed that peace talks would be held in two weeks time to help end the insurgency. A Malaysian official said the meetings would deal initially with determining "terms of reference" for going forward, adding it was hoped other groups would join in later.
Apart from the launch of a peace process, the two leaders announced further measures to promote the linkage of Thailand's southern development plan to Malaysia's Northern and Western states. The need for stability in this region is thought to be one incentive for the two countries to work together for a solution in southern Thailand.
With elections looming for the Najib administration, the Malaysian government is also keen on presenting a strong display of foreign policy to its population.
Observers to the talks have questioned whether the rebel spokespersons will have any control over the fighting insurgents. The government also faces considerable trouble identifying leaders to negotiate with.
There has also been concern about whether Malaysia is the best mediator for the two sides. Thai public perception could be that they are too close to the Malay-Muslim insurgents. If a broker must come from within the region, some have suggested that Indonesia offers a better profile and more proven experience.
Upon the signing of the deal, officials were keen to play down expectations. Secretary-General of Thailand's National Security Council Paradorn Pattanatabutr, emphasised that the agreement was "another attempt by the government to tackle the unrest" and did not mean an immediate end to the conflict.
Report: Malaysia to host Thai peace talks in 2 weeks (CNA, 28 February 2013)
Report: M'sia to facilitate negotiations with south insurgents (The Nation, 27 February 2013)