The message was as clear as it was gruesome -- a note left on the headless body of Cheam Nadkaew warned that other Buddhists would meet the same fate as the rubber tapper if the police did not stop arresting "innocent" Muslims.
Cheam, 63, a Buddhist who lived with his wife in a remote Muslim village, on Saturday became the latest victim in the litany of killings blamed on Islamic separatists in Thailand's deep south.
To drive home the message, the killers had flung Cheam's head in the village street while the body was left in the rubber plantation he managed several kilometers away.
One month after security forces shot and killed 107 suspected militants in a single day, Thailand's government is still struggling to find a strategy to control the separatist movement in the three Muslim-dominated provinces of this predominantly Buddhist kingdom.
"They (the government) smile outwardly but actually they are deathly scared from inside. They say one thing and think another," said Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, head of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.
"The government is aware the situation in southern Thailand is serious but they are trying to play it down because they want to cover up their incoherent approach to the problems," he said.
Initially the government blamed the violence on drug dealers and personal disputes, then on corrupt politicians, and finally has acknowledged the outbreak of a Muslim separatist movement.
But critics say the government is deceiving itself that economic deprivation in the traditionally poor provinces is to blame for the unrest, while ignoring possible links to such groups as al-Qaeda, and its regional arm, Jemaah Islamiyah.
In interviews last week with several government, police and army officials in the south, all of them acknowledged they were dealing with separatist insurgents, but insisted the militants had very little local support.
They said a small number of religious teachers are "brainwashing" jobless and gullible young people with the separatist ideology, sometimes giving them physical training in jungle camps, and occasionally using black magic to instill a false sense of invincibility in the recruits.
"The No. 1 reason is the separatist teachings by religious leaders who are twisting the Koran out of context," said Major-General Krai-rerk Khantongkum, military adviser to the army commander of the southern region.
The seeds of the separatist struggle were sown in 1902 when three provinces -- part of the Islamic kingdom of Pattani -- were annexed by Thailand, then known as Siam.
The movement drew strength from alienation and a sense of discrimination among the Muslims, who had little say in the administration of the territory and were closer to neighboring Malaysia in culture, language and religion than their Buddhist compatriots.
Separatist sentiment, which had periodically flared in the region, exploded again this year with a Jan. 4 raid on a military armory in Narathiwat and the torching of 21 schools, seen as symbols of Buddhist dominance.
Since then, suspected militants have killed more than 100 people -- policemen, government teachers, Buddhist monks and village headman, all seen as embodiments of government discrimination.
"The problem is old but it has burst now. Whenever there is oppression, it will burst," said Hama Sai, a religious school teacher in the village of Tasah in Pattani.
"Everyone wants to be free," Said said.
He said Muslims don't get jobs in the government easily, and the curriculum in schools is imposed by the central government in Bangkok.
Emboldened by their past successes, the insurgents -- mostly poorly armed teenagers -- launched their most daring attack ever on April 28, raiding 10 security outposts. Shouting "God is Great" and waving machetes, they were met by well-prepared troops and policemen. After the shooting stopped, 107 militants and five security forces were dead.
But officials still have no idea -- or are refusing to say -- how many armed militants are active in the area. One military official privately said there are less than 100 but acknowledged that their supporters number in the thousands.
Saturday's beheading of Cheam -- apparently an innocent victim picked at random -- marked a new, more brutal phase in the violence.
"If you bastards continue to arrest innocent Malays, we will damn sure kill more innocent Thai Buddhists," said the note on his body, reflecting the hatred in the south for the police, who are accused of heavy-handed tactics including arbitrary arrests and kidnappings.
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