Wadeng Puteh, a 90-year-old Muslim farmer, vividly remembers how he was trudging home from the fields half-naked with his water buffalo when he met the king of Thailand one evening long ago. A lifetime friendship followed, along with big benefits for his once poverty-stricken village.
"I worry about the king's health. I miss him every day," Wadeng said, his wizened face sparkling as he relates how he once traveled to Bangkok to visit King Bhumibol Adulyadej when the monarch was hospitalized.
In a region where Muslim insurgents wage a bloody struggle for autonomy and sharp criticism of the central government is common even by non-radicals, warm statements still are frequently heard about the king, who has traveled often to the south -- meeting Wadeng on one such visit.
By fostering development in the south over the decades, the king and his family have earned the respect and trust of a sizable portion of Muslims in the country's three southernmost provinces where more than 1,300 people have been slain over the past two years.
Significantly, among the almost daily shootings, bombings and arson, which routinely target government institutions, the region's numerous royal projects have been left largely untouched by the rebels.
In face of the violence, Bhumibol has advised that Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra take a "gentle approach" to the region, but Thaksin has been widely criticized for heavy-handed, sometimes brutal tactics that have only escalated the bloodletting.
Security forces stormed a mosque, killing 107 lightly armed militants in 2004, and later that year 85 suspected rebels died, most of them of suffocation, after being stuffed into army trucks. Both incidents were condemned by Muslims worldwide.
"The crown has made the south one of its top priorities," said Zachary Abuza, an expert on the region's Islamic insurgencies. "The royal family did a lot in stemming past rebellions and they see themselves as having a role now."
Prem Tinsulanonda, president of the king's advisory body, and other members of the Privy Council are making frequent trips to the south, advocating good governance and development in contrast to Thaksin's stress on security and suppression. A National Reconciliation Commission, set up as an independent body last year, is widely seen as a royally inspired initiative.
But so far these efforts haven't led to significant shifts in government policies, which analysts say are unlikely to change until Thaksin exits the political scene. Almost daily demonstrations in the Thai capital are calling for his ouster, accusing him of corruption and abuse of power.
"I am a Muslim. I was educated in Egypt, but I tell you, `The king is the essential pillar,'" said Nidir Waba, deputy head of the area's Islamic Council who joined other Muslim leaders last year in appealing to the constitutional monarch to appoint an interim government in place of Thaksin's.
"Many Thai Buddhists say that we Muslims are not real Thais, but the king has been able to gather up Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus under one umbrella," he said.
The highly popular king, a Buddhist like most in Thailand, has stressed his constitutional role as protector of all religions. But his standing in the south also springs from having seeded hundreds of projects going back to the early 1970s aimed at fighting grassroots poverty -- one of the causes of unrest.