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BANGKOK – Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad met Wednesday with Thailand's leader and discussed peace talks in Thailand's southern border provinces where a Muslim separatist insurgency has been raging for over a decade.
Malaysia has been a facilitator between rebel groups and the Thai government but so far little progress has been made. Almost 7,000 people have died in the insurgency in Thailand's three southernmost provinces since 2004.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said he and Mahathir discussed the problems facing Thailand's southern border provinces and agreed on greater cooperation.
"We understand each other better on our concerns and limitations," Prayuth said. "I assured him that the dialogue will continue, with Malaysia as the facilitator."
"At the same time, the two countries will expand the scope of cooperation to include other areas such as border security, economic development and measures to tackle broader security issues, particularly in countering terrorism, extremism, and transnational crime such as narcotic drugs and human trafficking," Prayuth said.
Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Tuesday that the visit is expected to add momentum to the southern Thailand peace process.
Mahathir briefly addressed reporters at Government House in Bangkok and said closer ties between the two nations could end the conflict.
"I'm quite sure that with both our countries sincerely working toward solving the problem the problem will be reduced if not ended all together," Mahathir said. "We see this as an opportunity to display our friendship with each other."
"It's not just a case of talking or drawing up treaties, it is really cooperation between two friendly neighbors and we want to continue that friendship," Mahathir said.
Don Pathan, a security analyst based in southern Thailand, said Malaysia has to be part of the dialogue because it has a stake in the border violence and most residents in the region identify as Malay Muslims. Thailand is predominantly Buddhist.
But time is running out for both Mahathir and Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha to reach a breakthrough in the negotiations with the rebels, Don said. Mahathir is expected to hand over power to his designated successor, Anwar Ibrahim, in less than two years, and Prayuth's military-led government has promised to hold elections early next year.
"And this wave of conflict has been going on for the past 14 years. What can they do in 18 months?" Don said, referring to Mahathir's remaining time in office.
Thailand and Malaysia have each named their own facilitators for the talks who are both high-ranking security officials, but Don said both men are political appointees who will be relieved once their governments undergo administrative changes.
Mahathir is to meet with the president of Thailand's privy council and with businesspeople and Malaysian expats on Thursday.