In towns and villages, insurgents move about with surprising ease, considering the massive deployment of security forces, and pay discreet, but regular visits to their families.
“He usually stayed for less than an hour,” Rusnee said of Mahrosu.
He was already on the run when they married in 2006. Many insurgents manage to raise families. Mahrosu and Rusnee have a six-year-old daughter and a 17-month-old son.
The ability to blend with the population also makes the militants a formidable enemy. Bacho-style insurgent attacks are logistically complex, said Thamanoon Wanna, commander of a Thai marine task force responsible for Bacho.
Weapons, ammunition and uniforms must be retrieved from multiple hiding places, then delivered to commandos arriving from all three war-torn provinces.
“They have supporters in the village, but right now we don’t know who they are,” Thamanoon said.
These militant cells have become “self-managed violence franchises,” said Duncan McCargo, a British academic and the author of Tearing Apart the Land, a book on the southern conflict. How to rein them in will top the Thai government’s agenda at this week’s talks in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia established its role as a regional peacemaker after helping broker a deal between the Philippine government and Muslim rebels in October. Doing the same in southern Thailand is complicated by the fact that insurgents often seek refuge across a porous border in Malaysia. Those suspected links, which the Malaysian government denies, have periodically strained ties with Thailand.
Yet, bringing peace to southern Thailand without Malaysian help would be like ending Northern Ireland’s “troubles” without the Republic of Ireland.
“The Thais have got to stop demonizing Malaysia and be ready to work with them,” McCargo said.
The BRN-C operative Abdulloh was pessimistic about the talks. The main insurgent delegate, Hassan Taib, who has identified himself as “chief of the BRN liaison office in Malaysia,” has no control over the fighters, he said.
McCargo also questioned Hassan’s credentials, saying: “The question is whether he can bring other people to the table.”
Historically, Thai governments have used dialogue to identify the movement’s leaders and “then buy them off or get rid of them,” McCargo said. “So you can understand why the militants are so suspicious.”
Thailand’s powerful military also has reservations. It has been lukewarm about the talks that confer legitimacy on an armed movement Thai generals have dismissed as more criminal than political.
The talks could encourage ethnic Malay Muslims in southern Thailand to express political aspirations Bangkok has long viewed as disloyal. Thailand’s militants are often described as “separatists,” but many southerners acknowledge that creating a tiny new Islamic republic sandwiched between Thailand and Malaysia is, as McCargo put it, “a fantasy.”
Abdulloh, who is bullet-scarred from a decades-old gunfight with Thai troops, seemed to be one of them. He wanted the Thai government to apologize for past human rights abuses and recognize a “Malay homeland,” but stopped short of demanding a separate state.
Even so, any solution will likely have to include greater autonomy for Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. Thailand is highly centralized, with the governors of its 76 provinces appointed by Bangkok. The three southern border provinces were traditionally a dumping ground for venal or inept officials.