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.
The possibility of the insurgency bursting its southern seams, especially if Jemaah Islamiyah or other foreign groups become more directly re-involved, sends chills down the spines of Thai leaders. And given the government's record, it's likely to be caught unprepared.
After 20 months of attacks, Thai authorities haven't pounced on a single major safe house, weapons cache or bomb laboratory and haven't captured more than a handful of possible suspects.
"Why? Because the insurgents operate inside the Muslim community which won't point a finger at them, and the military is out there in the cold on its own," said Worawit, who teaches Malay studies at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani. Muslims comprise only about 5 percent, or 3.1 million, of Thailand's population of 62 million -- nearly all of them in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
The insurgents are believed to be members of an alphabet soup of linked groups like GMIP, BRN and New PULO who have announced neither their manifesto nor leadership, communicating only through word-of-mouth and leaflets. Separatism appears to remain at the core of the insurgency although it's burnished with the language and ideology of international Islamic radicals.
Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia who recently visited the region, said he believes the militants have a broad agenda: "This is much more than an insurgency. This is much more of an attempt to transform society," he said. He noted that the rebels have targeted moderate Muslims and through their leaflets have warned clergy not to perform funeral rites for those they kill and threatened people who do business on Friday, the Muslim holy day.
While other experts disagree, Abuza links the violence to the growth of Salafism, which preaches a puritanical interpretation of Islam in a society where moderation and tolerance of Buddhist neighbors prevailed in the past.
"It's only a matter of time before the broader Islamic militant community focuses on Thailand's treatment of its Muslim minority. The systematic persecution of Muslims is the light that attracts the jihadist moths," said Abuza, who teaches at Simmons College in Boston.
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government has veered from military crackdowns and martial law to a national reconciliation council, an air drop of paper birds symbolizing peace, a plan to distribute free TV sets to keep restive youths focused on soccer and a troupe of pop stars dispatched to entertain the southerners.
"If the Thai government continues to use violence, more innocent, neutral people will turn toward the way of violence," says Muhammad Nasir, a senior administrator at Yala Islamic College.
While Muslims killed by security forces are among the 1,000 dead, militants have killed Buddhist monks, teachers, policemen, villagers, moderate Muslims and government sympathizers.
"The big question is why aren't more Muslims in the world not paying attention to this because normally the radicals will take up the cause. The only answer I can really come up with is that they're still preoccupied with Iraq," says Abuza. "But I could imagine it would take one more Tak Bai-type incident."
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