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(For a Q+A on the Thai insurgency, double click on: [ID:nBKK485664])
By Martin Petty
YALA, Thailand, July 3 (Reuters) - When he heard the loud cracks of gunfire, Prapan Pormapat knew the insurgents had just claimed another victim.
An engine roared as two gunmen sped away on a motorcycle, leaving behind the body of a saffron-robed Buddhist monk in a pool of blood.
"Everyone here carries a gun now," said Prapan, a Buddhist tailor, recounting the chilling tale of when a shadowy five-year rebellion first struck in this sleepy neighbourhood of Yala in southern Thailand.
"I rarely go out. I’m too scared to travel anywhere. We don’t know who is behind this violence, or what they want," he said.
Thailand’s Muslim deep south has become the battleground of one of the world’s most mysterious conflicts, a brutal insurgency that has claimed nearly 3,500 lives since 2004.
A climate of fear and intimidation has gripped the provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani, and the 30,000 troops here offer little protection against the near-daily bombings and shootings.
The soldiers sent to crush the insurgency have no idea who they are fighting.
"We don’t know where the attacks will come from," said Daeng, an army colonel, nervously huddled behind a wall of barbed wire and sandbags at a checkpoint outside a Muslim village.
"We don’t know if these people live in this village, or if they’ve come here to kill us."
With its rolling hills and thick jungle dotted with white village mosques, the rubber-rich region bordering Malaysia is one of Thailand’s most picturesque, but the unrelenting violence has ensured tourists and investors keep well away.
Attacks on plantation workers have slashed the local rubber output, and would-be investors have declined government offers of soft loans and tax breaks for fear of being targeted.
"The only businesses making any money here are the ones selling guns," said Wirach Assawasuksant, president of Yala’s chamber of commerce. He carries a gun himself.
"There’s no new investment, insurance premiums are too high. All the businesses are suffering," he added, with a shrug.
At dusk, a provincial capital once abuzz with shoppers and packed restaurants now resembles a ghost town after a slew of drive-by shootings and motorcycle bombings, carried out just a mile away from an army base housing several thousand troops.
No credible group has claimed responsibility for the violence in the deep south, which was part of an ethnic Malay Muslim sultanate annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago.
The army says it has "dramatically improved" its intelligence gathering, but admits its counter-insurgency capabilities are limited because it is unsure exactly who the enemy is.
Even individual insurgents are kept in the dark.
"They don’t know who they are fighting for or who is giving their orders," said Colonel Parinya Chaidilok, a senior Yala-based official from Thailand’s powerful Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC).
"The groups have not revealed themselves, or who their leaders are. If we know, we can have dialogue, we can find out what they want," he said.
Security analysts and academics say the insurgency is an independence struggle by Malay Muslims rebelling against 100 years of forced assimilation and Thai Buddhist "oppression".
Although the campaign appears to target symbols of the Thai state — police, soldiers, teachers — more than half of the victims have been Muslims, which has fed speculation about extra-judicial killings by security forces and state-armed Buddhist defence volunteers.
Feelings of anger, alienation and injustice are rife, with relations between Muslims and security forces strained by the failure to investigate or punish state officials for the deaths, torture and disappearances of villagers.
When 11 Muslims where shot dead by mystery gunmen as they prayed at Narathiwat’s Al Furquan mosque on June 8, the government had difficulty convincing villagers it was the work of Muslim militants.
"I suspect the authorities are behind it, because no one has been arrested," says Bearmah, showing his disdain for the troops during a discussion with locals in a rustic village tea shop in Pattani. "Muslims don’t kill other Muslims praying in a mosque."
The mosque deaths in Cho Airong district, a "red zone" the military says is "infested" with insurgents, added to the 43 people killed and nearly 70 injured in the south in the last month alone.
With lives at stake, most people are afraid to discuss separatism, or to speculate as to who is behind the violence.
"We don’t know what these attacks are about, or who is doing this," said an elderly man, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes among a group of villagers after evening prayers in Pattani.
Like most people, he requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
"We just keep ourselves to ourselves, live our lives. We don’t get involved," he said in the Malay dialect spoken by 80 percent of the people here.
"All we want to know is why all these soldiers cannot stop these killings."
Successive Thai governments have tried everything, including tough military crackdowns, investment aid, "hearts and minds" campaigns and even free cable TV showing English Premier League soccer. Yet nothing has worked.
The unrest is another distraction for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva as he works to revive Thailand’s export-driven economy while fighting off political challenges from both inside and outside his fragile six-party coalition.
Like his predecessors, Abhisit has refused to engage in dialogue with separatists, or accept outside help.
"This is an internal problem which the government can resolve," Abhisit told a seminar on the southern unrest in Bangkok this week.
"With violence, there’s no way they can reach the goals they say will lead to fairness, justice or a better life for their people."
The charismatic Colonel Parinya, who has studied counter-terrorism in the United States, says the army has learned from past mistakes, and heavy-handed military tactics have only exacerbated the conflict.
"This insurgency could go on for a long time, that’s why we have to keep changing our strategy," he says.
"We’re now starting to win the hearts and minds of the people. When we win their support, we will win this war and the killings will stop." (Editing by Megan Goldin)