Malaysian Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has vowed to cooperate with Thailand to resolve three years of separatist unrest on their common border, saying stability there would help alleviate poverty.
The two countries agree that poverty in the region is one of the factors fuelling the insurgency in southern Thailand's Muslim-majority provinces, where more than 1,900 people have been killed, Abdullah told the Bangkok Post.
"Poverty and meager economic development in the border areas were among the contributing factors which brought about security problems in southern Thailand," Abdullah told the newspaper.
"Malaysia is happy and willing to assist Thailand wherever possible to bring stability to the area," he said.
|Thailand's Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont (R) and his Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Ahmad Badawi|
"We believe that when there is stability, there will be greater economic activity leading to greater prosperity. Once there is stability and prosperity, the task of securing an enduring peace in the area will become more feasible."
Abdullah arrived in Thailand on Sunday, on a trip aimed at finding ways of putting an end to the Islamic separatist violence and underlining the improving relations between the neighbours.
Ties between mainly Muslim Malaysia and Buddhist Thailand were badly strained under ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra, who accused Malaysia of failing to prevent insurgents from crossing the border to stage attacks.
Since Thaksin's ouster in September, the army-installed government of Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has made a priority of restoring peace in southern Thailand and of improving relations with Malaysia.
So far, his efforts have not yielded much progress, with no apparent break in the violence. Two grisly beheadings rattled the region this month.
Thailand has proposed extending a wall along the border with Malaysia in a bid to prevent insurgents from slipping back and forth across the border.
Thailand also wants to end dual nationality for residents along the border, which security forces believe would make it harder for insurgents to operate in the area.
Abdullah told the Post he was willing to listen to Thai proposals on both points.
A Thai foreign ministry official said Surayud and Abdullah were set to meet at 1030 GMT, following an audience with Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
"The Malaysian side has tried to help deal with the situation in the Thai south, which has affected them as well, both in terms of security and the economy," the official told AFP.
"We expect proposals for cooperation already in the pipeline to be pushed forward at today's meeting," he added.
Political analyst Thitinan Pongsudhirak said that Malaysian cooperation would be "instrumental" in resolving the unrest, as Thailand would need help in curbing insurgent activity.
"The insurgents, many of them have dual nationality, and because of the nature of the porous border between Thailand and Malaysia, they have slipped in and out," Thitinan told AFP.
If Surayud's peace-building efforts eventually gain steam, Thailand might also need Malaysian help in arranging third-party mediation with the rebels, he added.