BANGKOK • Malaysia's new leader, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, met his Thai counterpart yesterday in his first visit to his northern neighbour, pledging his help to bring peace in Thailand's violence-scarred south.
Thailand's mainly Muslim southern region bordering Malaysia has been in the grips of a low-level but bloody insurgency for more than a decade, as ethnic Malay militants battle the Buddhist-majority state for greater autonomy.
The insurgency has seen almost 7,000 people - mostly civilians - killed since 2004, although the death toll last year was the lowest in 13 years amid a tighter security operation.
Malaysia has long acted as a facilitator for brokering peace talks between the Thai government and Mara Patani, an umbrella group that claims to be the political wing of a shadowy network of rebel fighters clashing with state forces.
But the talks have stalled in the past year, and both countries recently appointed new representatives to lead the delicate negotiation process.
Dr Mahathir met in the late afternoon junta chief Prayut Chan-o-cha in Bangkok, telling a press conference afterwards that working together to resolve the conflict was an "opportunity to display" the friendship between the neighbours.
"We have pledged to help in whatever way possible to end this violence in the south," Dr Mahathir said.
Resolving the years-long conflict would be in the best interests for both countries, as well as for the region, Mr Prayut told reporters.
"The dialogue will resume immediately and Malaysia is the facilitator," Mr Prayut said.
"We both agree that this is Thailand's domestic problem. Malaysia is willing to help so that the problems will be solved faster," said Mr Prayut.
Neither party gave further details or a timeline for the process.
Mr Panitan Wattanayagorn, a security adviser to Thailand's Deputy Prime Minister, told the Agence France-Presse on Tuesday that Malaysia's role was essential in ensuring peace and stability in the restive southern states.
"This gives us hope to move the peace process forward," he said. "We need Malaysia as a facilitator."
But analysts of the Deep South conflict remain sceptical of moves to jump-start fractious talks months before expected elections in February.
"Mara Patani said they are not going to come to the table until there is a democratically elected government in Thailand," Mr Don Pathan, a Thailand-based independent analyst, told AFP.
"Most importantly, the BRN, the group that controls virtually all the combatants on the ground, are not part of the dialogue."
The BRN, or Barisan Revolusi Nasional, is believed to oversee most fighters but has long refused to talk barring international mediation - which the Thai government has consistently rejected.
Thailand's three southernmost provinces were colonised over a century ago. But the majority Malay Muslim population have long chafed under Bangkok's rule.
Rights groups have accused both insurgents and security forces of widespread human rights abuses in the region.
How far talks go depends not on Malaysia, but on the Thai military which has "dragged its feet" on the process, said Dr Paul Chambers, an expert on the conflict at Naresuan University. "The fact that the talks have fallen off could mean that the junta has seen them more as a public relations stunt than as a sincere endeavour."
Dr Mahathir's visit to Thailand is the first for the statesman since he swept to a surprise victory in the country's national poll in May.
He will also meet with members of the Malaysian diaspora today.