BANGKOK, Thailand – Thailand's new prime minister said Wednesday he will use peaceful means to resolve the Muslim insurgency in south — a clear reversal of the previous government's iron-fisted strategy.
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, on a one-day visit to Malaysia, said he will reach out to all minority Muslims in his predominantly Buddhist country to end the separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 1,700 lives since January 2004.
He also said Thailand plans to work more closely with Muslim-majority Malaysia, which borders southern Thailand, in solving the problem.
"We will try to talk to a lot of people," said Surayud, a former army general who was named Thailand's interim prime minister after a Sept. 19 bloodless military coup that ousted the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"I told the Malaysian prime minister that I would talk to the Muslim leaders in the south, to the kids in schools. That's the way I am trying to present myself — by way of talking," he said.
Surayud said his "personal strategy" was to try "to resolve these problems by peaceful means."
The comments mark a turnaround from Thaksin's hard-nosed approach. He sent thousands of troops to the south to crush the insurgency, with little success.
Surayud spoke Wednesday after talks with his Malaysian counterpart, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Both said they will remain in telephone contact toem in southern Thailand.
Upon his return to Thailand late Wednesday night, Surayud said the two had revived a working relationship between their countries, which he called a "prime goal" of his visit.
He said the two leaders will meet more often to cooperate on the southern violence issue, a plan which would be to "the benefit of both countries."
Previously, the insurgency had also soured Thai-Malaysian relations, with Thaksin's government frequently accusing Malaysia of harboring militants. Malaysia's government denied the charge.
Malaysia's only concern is that the Muslims in southern Thailand — who share the same religion and ethnicity with Malays across the border — "live in peace and without fear," Abdullah told reporters.
Surayud's visit came amid former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's efforts to mediate between the Thai government and Islamic separatists, who operate in the three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia.
Surayud's government has said it wants to hold talks with insurgent leaders and has been in contact with some, but has not publicly said when.
Malaysian government leaders have responded by saying they are willing to host peace talks if both sides agree.
Surayud also said on Wednesday that he had asked Malaysia to help improve understanding of the situation in the south among fellow Muslim countries.