Too early for talks on South

Before he left for a visit to Malaysia, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yubamrung promised that when he returned he would have results that would improve the situation in the deep South. But it seems the most interesting news he made in the neighbouring country was to get drunk.

He made confusing statements while in Malaysia, returned to Thailand with no new ideas, and emphasised upon his return to Thailand that tackling the insurgency will take time.

The visit began with a baffling statement that he would not negotiate with southern rebels during his three-day trip. With no separatists to be seen, that was a given. From there the trip was mostly downhill. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak made the usual statements: Malaysia is against separatism in Thailand, and is willing to help, if needed.

The two sides signed five "security agreements" but none dealt with the security of the deep South. Drugs and human trafficking, visas and prisoner exchanges, which are covered by the agreements, all are important matters between the two nations.

In the event, since Mr Chalerm had mysteriously promised to bring back good news about ending the violence in the South, the country must be disappointed at his lack of progress.

Malaysia is understandably a proponent of talks, given its role in last year's successful negotiations between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). After that agreement obtained signatures from both sides, the level of insurgent violence in the southern Philippines went down to near zero. But the so-called Mindanao Model in no way applies to Thailand.

In the first place, there is no group from the South of Thailand to talk to. When it engaged the Philippine government, the MILF had a political arm, with known leaders. The gangs in the deep South obviously have leaders and planners, but there are no names _ not of the groups, not of their leaders.

Negotiations must proceed between two or more sides with legitimacy. No southern group or separatist leader is a legitimate or logical voice for the people in the South. Instead of casting around for ghostly participants at possible Malaysia-hosted talks, Thai leaders should be talking and negotiating with the known, real leaders in the deep South.

Mr Najib's offer to help as needed must be appreciated, but there is nothing for him to do about negotiations.

Communities, mosques, temples and business groups know the needs of the region. Tambon officials, imams and local businessmen and women are legitimate leaders in the region. If the politicians in Bangkok want to know the problems, gripes and aspirations of the deep South, they should ask the upstanding citizens of the region. They need not and should not grope around in a search for separatists who have done nothing _ literally nothing _ to earn local support for a political programme of some sort.

Mr Chalerm had no reason to promise progress on the South during his visit to Malaysia. The insurgents have effectively created a vicious and deadly atmosphere. Their terrorism, intimidation and attacks do not give them legitimacy, either as representatives of the South or as participants in negotiations with the government.

Working with the southern people is more logical, and is likely to yield more productive results.