Time running out for South

The security situation in the far South is as bad today as it has ever been. The number of militant attacks, the level of extreme violence and the flouting of the government's authority add up to a national crisis. The situation has never so clearly called for a rational, inventive policy. It is not too late to save the far South, but time and opportunity are running short.

This is the situation facing both the central government and far South residents. The beleaguered southerners have endured decades of unrest and nearly 10 years of constant, guerrilla-style warfare. It is an understatement to say that many governments have made serious errors in their policies and treatment of southern people.

The shocking, murderous violence by militants is clearly a far worse alternative.

The Yingluck Shinawatra government now has a unique opportunity to address past grievances and set the far South on a sustainable path. The Malaysia-based separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) has called for peace talks.

It is the first-ever clear opening to a southern solution. To use diplomatic jargon, an unstoppable "peace process" has begun. Anti-government groups will be forced to join the process or else lose any claim to the benefits of a future peace.

Kudos are due to National Security Council (NSC) chief Paradorn Pattanatabut for arranging the BRN talks. However, the fragile process requires major help before it can result in a negotiated peace for the southernmost provinces.

The BRN has revealed its bargaining strategy, but peace talks can advance only with strong political support. Several cabinet ministers have already expressed pessimism or veiled opposition to Lt Gen Paradorn's efforts. The BRN's five demands will give even more ammunition to those who oppose the talks.

From the start, however, Ms Yingluck has favoured the dialogue. Last week, she correctly said there is no choice in the matter. To abandon or delay the talks with the BRN would mean accepting a never-ending war in the South. It is time for the prime minister to increase the volume and direction of her message. Only strong support from the government can ensure serious responses from militant groups. And the government, with one voice, must make its support for Lt Gen Paradorn's efforts crystal clear.

The military cannot solve the southern violence. In fact, in the wake of last weekend's anniversary of the Krue Se mosque attack, it is clear the use of soldiers only acts to make matters worse. Negotiations are the only way to end the violence, but only if they are reached with consensus and the support of southern residents.

Here then is a chance for the government. It can seize the opportunity from the vicious militant gangs, drug traffickers, arms smugglers and other groups, and take control of a process designed to lead to peace. It must ensure it has the support of all state agencies, including the military. And it must halt any back-stabbing attempts to weaken the Thai negotiating team or its position.

This is the prime minister's chance to turn the bloody chaos of the South into a positive and enduring peace. With Ms Yingluck's firm hand, success is an option. But without it, all chances for peace could disappear.