By Panu Wongcha-um
BANGKOK, Jan 21 (Reuters) - A senior Thai official met an envoy of the main insurgent group fighting in the country's largely Muslim south in what both sides described as a positive step towards a peace process, the Thai government said on Tuesday.
The meeting in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur marked the first time the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) had returned to talks since it pulled out of an earlier peace dialogue in 2014.
The long-running insurgency in the Malay-speaking region of predominantly Buddhist Thailand has killed some 7,000 people over the past 15 years.
The conflict has flared on and off for decades as insurgent groups like the BRN continued a guerrilla war to demand independence for Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces, which were part of an independent Malay sultanate before they were annexed by the Thais in 1909. Successive Thai governments have refused to allow any degree of autonomy in the restive region.
General Wanlop Rugsanaoh, the head of Thailand's Peace Dialogue Panel, met with Anas Abdulrahman, a representative of the BRN on Monday for a discussion brokered by the Malaysian government, a Thai government statement said.
A senior BRN official, Abdul Aziz Jabal, described the meeting as "the first round of official peace dialogue".
He told a news conference in Kuala Lumpur that the two sides agreed on several mutual commitments, including a framework and terms of reference laying ground rules for future talks.
The BRN official added that the talks were attended by "observers from overseas", without elaborating.
The BRN was among several insurgent groups to have participated in formal peace talks with the Thai government until a military coup in 2014. The military junta resumed talks with other insurgent groups two years later but the BRN did not join that process, which stalled in 2018.
Since then, the BRN and the Thai government have had several contacts, including a secret meeting last August outside of Thailand.
Mara Patani, an umbrella group representing other insurgent factions, welcomed Monday's meeting as a positive step for the stalled peace process.
"It is good that the BRN has agreed to come to the table finally, We have been expecting that for so long and they were elusive," Abu Hafez Al-Hakim, a Mara Patani, spokesman, told Reuters. "I hope the Thai government will be serious and more committed from now on." (Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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