Heart-wrenching messages of fear, love and despair, sent by high school students from a sinking South Korean ferry added extra emotional weight Thursday to a tragedy that has stunned the entire nation.
Thailand set for peace talks with rebels
The run-up to talks between Thai officials and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) rebel group, to be held in a safehouse in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur, has been overshadowed by ongoing violence in Thailand's southernmost provinces.
Thai negotiators say they want a halt to attacks against civilian targets, so they can feel confident that they are talking to rebel leaders who can control the battle-hardened militants on the ground.
"We expect to see an end to attacks against soft targets, especially bombs that affect innocent people," Paradorn Pattanatabut, the head of Thailand's National Security Council who is expected to attend the talks, told AFP.
He said he was "100 percent" certain Thai authorities would be talking to the right people, but added officials might seek out other rebel negotiators if the violence does not abate soon.
Monks and teachers have been frequent targets for assassination in the restive region while dozens of schools have been torched by militants for their perceived links with the Thai state.
Questions remain over the ability of older militant leaders to rein in attacks by an increasingly ruthless and well-organised younger generation that operates in Thailand's southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia.
"They are divided within the movement" between the "invisible" foot-soldiers and the prominent exiled leaders, according to Gotham Arya, of the Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies at Mahidol University.
He added that "intra-movement" talks to bridge differences among rebel groups also need to take place if peace is to be won.
A lattice of shadowy militant groups is blamed for the near-daily violence, which includes bombings, ambushes and even beheadings, but little is known about the groups' precise identity and structure.
The BRN, whose Malay name means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of the larger groups held responsible by Thailand for the violence.
There was conflicting information as to whether other rebel organisations would join Thursday's talks.
Thailand will bring a "wish-list of confidence-building measures" to the negotiating table including its call for an end to attacks on civilians, according to Anthony Davis, a Thailand-based security analyst at IHS-Jane's.
"But that's not going to happen in its entirety, as it covers a lot of what the insurgents do militarily and may stretch command and control beyond what can reasonably be expected," he said.
Thailand also "has to come to the party", he said, suggesting it may dangle the release of senior militant prisoners and a relaxation of some emergency laws in exchange for a limited cessation of violence in a specified area.
Malaysia has already hosted negotiations between the Philippines and Muslim separatists in the south of that country, resulting in a landmark agreement in October aimed at burying a decades-long insurgency there.
The current phase of the Thai conflict started in January 2004 and has claimed more than 5,500 lives, mainly in Thailand's three southernmost, Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
But the roots of the insurgency draw on long-standing Malay nationalist antipathy to rule by Buddhist Thailand, which started when Bangkok annexed the region in 1902.
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