updated 10/18/2006 11:00:13 AM ET 2006-10-18T15:00:13

Thailand’s new prime minister said Wednesday he will try to peacefully resolve the Muslim insurgency in the kingdom’s southern provinces — a 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 the predominantly Buddhist country to end the separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 1,700 lives since January 2004.

“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.

Surayud made the comments after talks with his Malaysian counterpart, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi.

“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 added that his “personal strategy” was to try “to resolve these problems by peaceful means.”

Shift from previous hard-nosed approach
The comments mark a turnaround from the hard-nosed approach adopted by Thaksin, who sent thousands of troops to the south to crush the insurgency, a strategy that achieved little success.

Surayud’s visit comes amid efforts by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to mediate between the Thai government and Islamic separatists who operate in the three Muslim-dominated provinces bordering Malaysia.

The insurgency had also soured relations between the two neighbors, with Thaksin’s government frequently accusing Malaysia of harboring the militants. Malaysia denied the charge.

Malaysia’s only concern is that the Muslims in southern Thailand — who are of the same ethnicity and religion as Malaysian Malays — “live in peace and without fear,” Abdullah said.

“It is not to be interpreted in any way that there is intention on our part to interfere with whatever that is happening on the Thai side,” said Abdullah.

The new Thai government has said it wants to hold talks with insurgent leaders and has been in contact with some of them. Malaysian government leaders have responded by saying they are willing to host the peace talks if both sides agree.

Surayud will visit Indonesia on Saturday and the Philippines and Vietnam next week. He has already been to Laos and Cambodia as part of a regional tour.

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