When he heard the loud cracks of gunfire, Prapan Pormapat knew the insurgents had just claimed another victim.
An engine roared as two gunmen sped away on a motorcycle, leaving behind the body of a saffron-robed Buddhist monk in a pool of blood.
“Everyone here carries a gun now,” said Prapan, a Buddhist tailor, recounting the chilling tale of when a shadowy five-year rebellion first struck in this sleepy neighborhood of Yala in southern Thailand.
“I rarely go out. I’m too scared to travel anywhere. We don’t know who is behind this violence or what they want,” he said.
Thailand’s Muslim deep south has become the battleground of one of the world’s most mysterious conflicts, a brutal insurgency that has claimed nearly 3,500 lives since 2004.
A climate of fear and intimidation has gripped the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, and the 30,000 troops in the region offer little protection against the near-daily bombings and shootings.
The soldiers sent to crush the insurgency have no idea who they are fighting.
“We don’t know where the attacks will come from,” said Daeng, an army colonel, nervously huddled behind a wall of barbed wire and sandbags at a checkpoint outside a Muslim village. “We don’t know if these people live in this village or if they’ve come here to kill us.”
With its rolling hills and thick jungle dotted with white village mosques, the rubber-rich region bordering Malaysia is one of Thailand’s most picturesque, but the unrelenting violence has ensured tourists and investors keep well away.
Attacks on plantation workers have slashed the local rubber output and would-be investors have declined government offers of soft loans and tax breaks for fear of being targeted.
“The only businesses making any money here are the ones selling guns,” said Wirach Assawasuksant, president of Yala’s chamber of commerce, who carries a gun himself.
“There’s no new investment, insurance premiums are too high. All the businesses are suffering,” he added, with a shrug.
At dusk, a provincial capital once abuzz with shoppers and packed restaurants now resembles a ghost town after a slew of drive-by shootings and motorcycle bombings, carried out just a kilometer away from an army base housing several thousand troops.
No credible group has claimed responsibility for the violence in the deep south, which was part of an ethnic Malay Muslim sultanate annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago.
The army says it has “dramatically improved” its intelligence gathering, but admits its counter-insurgency capabilities are limited because it is unsure exactly who the enemy is.
Even individual insurgents are kept in the dark.
“They don’t know who they are fighting for or who is giving their orders,” said Colonel Parinya Chaidilok, a senior Yala-based official from Thailand’s powerful Internal Security Operations Command.
“The groups have not revealed themselves, or who their leaders are. If we know, we can have dialogue, we can find out what they want,” he said.
Security analysts and academics say the insurgency is an independence struggle by Malay Muslims rebelling against 100 years of forced assimilation and Thai Buddhist “oppression.”
Although the campaign appears to target symbols of the Thai state — police, soldiers, teachers — more than half of the victims have been Muslims, which has fed speculation about extra-judicial killings by security forces and state-armed Buddhist defense volunteers.