WASHINGTON, May 23 -

Mr. Speaker, at 1.8 million people, Thailand is home to the third largest ethnic Malay population in the world. Since 2004, extremists in the country have been fighting the government for an independent state for the ethnic group. This has been one of the bloodiest conflicts in Southeast Asia and has left nearly 5,000 people dead.

According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, in the past four years alone, more than 1,400 people have died and 3,200 have been wounded. The violence has killed indiscriminately. Fatalities have included soldiers, policemen, village leaders, monks, teachers, and innocent civilians. While most of those killed were the victims of shootings, there have also been nearly 600 improvised explosive device attacks and 40 beheadings since January 2009.

Thankfully, it is possible this cycle of violence could be coming to an end.

With the help of Malaysian mediators, the chairman of the Thai National Security Council and a representative of one of the Malay separatist groups active in the region, Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), signed an agreement in February to formally begin peace talks. Reports indicate former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's started talks behind the scenes years ago that helped lead to this milestone agreement. He should be commended for those efforts.

Public peace talks between the government and the rebels will be a big step forward in solving the conflict in southern Thailand. While previous attempts have been made, this marks the first time that both sides have agreed in writing to hold talks. Mr. Speaker, the progress that is slowly being achieved in southern Thailand is significant, and we should hope that it continues until there is lasting peace throughout the country. And that's just the way it is.