Motorcycle-riding soldiers with M-16s pass school girls in colorful head scarves and flowing batik-pattern dresses. Sandbagged outposts guard bridges and key highway intersections, and helicopters patrol what was once an idyllic, languid countryside.
Now, southern Thailand is the bloodiest killing ground for Muslims after Iraq. The death toll from bombings, beheadings and drive-by shootings tops 1,000 people in an insurgency with some links to Islamic militant groups in next-door Malaysia and Indonesia, including an al-Qaeda ally.
More than 20,000 soldiers and police across the region are hunting for an estimated 2,000 insurgents as officials point to a looming threat -- an injection of foreign terrorists that could spread the 20-month-old battle to Thailand's big cities and across the border.
Brutality by Thailand's security forces, the disappearance of anti-government figures, lack of respect for Islam and the arrogance of civil servants toward the local Muslim population is helping to fuel the unrest, Muslim leaders and villagers contend.
"If the government continues to commit acts of violence, there's danger the Muslim brotherhood will come in," said Worawit Baru, a Muslim professor with ties to the community.
Although bombs used by the Muslim insurgents are getting more powerful and sophisticated and the attacks better coordinated, senior Thai intelligence officials don't yet see a direct hand by outsiders in the almost daily violence which began in January 2004.
Today's killings are set against strivings for a separate Islamic homeland which began a century ago when an independent sultanate was annexed by the Buddhist kingdom of Thailand rather than merged into Muslim Malaya, the British colony that later became Malaysia.
"It's domestic. It's a family affair," says Abdulrahman Abdulsamad, chairman of Narathiwat province's Islamic council.
Despite such assertions, the insurgency -- rooted in Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala -- is hardly self-contained.
Involved in the violence are Thai Muslims trained in Libya and Syria, who fought beside Indonesian, Filipino and other Asian militants against Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The veterans maintain ties with their comrades-in-arms and may be getting updates on terrorist technology, said Police General Jumpol Manmai, who heads the National Intelligence Agency.
Malaysia has repeatedly denied rebel training camps exist on its soil. However, it has long served as a sanctuary for Thai Muslim dissidents and a source of funds provided by sympathetic Muslims. Most recently, 131 villagers fled into Malaysia reportedly out of fear of the military, but the Thai government said the exodus was instigated by insurgents to make Thailand look bad.
Perhaps most important are connections to Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terrorist network linked to al-Qaeda. Captured in Thailand in 2003 and now in US custody, the group's operational chief, Riduan Isamuddin -- an Indonesian better known as Hambali -- met with Thai militants who gave him and other JI operatives shelter and logistics support. In the end, Jemaah Islamiyah didn't go along with local militant plans to bomb Western embassies in Bangkok and tourist sites frequented by foreigners, according to Thai intelligence officials.