BANGKOK, Thailand (RNS) Buddhist-majority Thailand hopes its first “common understanding” with minority ethnic Malay Islamist guerrillas will create “a violence-free month of Ramadan” in four Southern provinces where a decade of fighting has killed more than 5,700 people.
The government says insurgents wrongly believe they can reclaim the region’s independent Islamic sultanate, which Bangkok annexed in 1909 -- when Thailand was known as Siam.
The guerrillas, however, recently demanded closing all markets in the South on Fridays for religious reasons, and enforcement of some Shariah laws.
The rebels frequently attack Buddhist monks, soldiers, teachers, farmers and others.
The fight is fueled by social problems, which should involve local solutions -- including greater autonomy -- instead of Bangkok's harsh, deadly control, said Southerners, international human rights groups and some Thai officials.
Desperate for peace, Bangkok is now asking rebels to prove they want a negotiated settlement.
On July 12, Thailand’s National Security Council and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or National Revolution Front, the separatists’ largest rebel group, signed a “common understanding,” also known as the “Ramadan Peace Initiative 2013.”
The two sides want to achieve a violence-free month of Ramadan in the Southern Thailand provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, and five areas of the Songkhla province.
The deal is the first time both sides officially agreed to halt fighting in the South.
Despite the agreement, Thai military officials do not expect the Ramadan accord to be entirely peaceful.
Rival Islamist insurgents may continue to stage hit-and-run attacks, they said.
One day after Ramadan began, a buried bomb exploded under an army truck carrying soldiers on a Yala province road, injuring eight.
Thailand is a major non-NATO ally of the U.S., which has armed and financed its military for decades and conducts massive, joint training exercises on Thai territory each year.
“The overall long-term goal of the movement in the south remains the creation of an independent state with Islamic governance,” a U.S. Congressional Research Service report said in 2012.
But Thailand's military said it is struggling just to “contain” the violence and keep it from spreading north to crowded tourist beach resorts or the capital, Bangkok.
Thailand is worried the rebels are trying to internationalize the conflict, which could allow the United Nations to intervene, especially amid allegations of human rights abuses committed by both sides.
The guerrillas have not attracted major visible support from al-Qaida, though news of the fighting does appear on international Islamists' websites.