Brutal militia stalks south Thailand

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In another temple, in another part of southern Thailand, another family mourns the latest victims of one of the world's worst, but least known insurgencies.

Sa, 31, sits with her palms pressed together in prayer as the Buddhist monks chant in unison.

Sa pictured (R) and the coffins containing her mother and father All four of Sa's family members were shot by militants and their homes burned

They are performing the nightly ceremony for her mother and father, whose pictures stand by their elaborately decorated coffins, surrounded by flowers.

Sa cremated her grandparents earlier that afternoon. All four of her family members were shot by militants, their homes burned down.

"They are very cruel. They were old and couldn't fight back. These people, this group of terrorists, are not human," she said in a very composed way, keeping her emotions hidden.

They were the last Buddhist family in the Muslim village where they had lived for decades, but their neighbours and friends could not stop the armed militia who came just after dark.

In six years of violence 4,300 people have been killed and 7,000 injured after a dormant separatist movement came to life in the deep south of Thailand on the Malaysian border.

The three modern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala used to be the historic Sultanate of Patani, officially absorbed into Thailand in 1909.

Despite Thailand's policy of unity among its various ethnic groups, many people here see themselves as Malay Muslim, or "Malayu" first and Thai second, speaking a Patani dialect and with a written language using Arabic script.

Hearts and minds

Every morning at around 0830 the children at Baan Taba school, in Narathiwat gather on the dusty playing field to sing the national anthem as the Thai flag is raised.

Children at Baan Taba school The teachers are Buddhists, lessons are in Thai but the pupils are Malay Muslim

The teachers are Buddhists and lessons are in Thai, but all the pupils are Malay Muslim.

"The kids feel they are Malayu - it's their language they use in their communities, but the government sees that Malayu is taught at private Islamic schools so it's not emphasised it in state schools," said Sangaun Inrak, president of the provincial teachers' federation.

"Up to now 137 teachers have been killed in the three southern provinces. The reason we become the target is because the militants' aim is to destroy the education system, which they believe will decrease people's confidence in the central government."

In the 1960s and 1970s separatists fought a guerrilla war against the Thai authorities, but by the 1980s military action, an amnesty and clever politics stopped the fighting.

But as the twin towers fell, a separatist movement was stirring again, based on an increasingly Islamic, but equally cultural and ethnic, identity and it erupted into life in 2004 with the storming of an army base.

Crates of ducks are given out as part of a government hearts and minds programme to help the poor Development projects aim to win the 'hearts and minds' of locals and isolate the militants

Brutal military action to crush the militants backfired, handing them a propaganda victory as troops killed separatists inside a mosque and then dozens of arrested protesters suffocated after being piled up in the back of military trucks with their hands tied.

The violence has declined since, but on average there are still two incidents every day, be it bombings or shootings, despite the almost 30,000 troops and 20,000 police sent to secure the area.

"I think our counter-insurgency strategy is actually gaining the support of the people with the two aims of protecting them and development trying to build a better future," said Songwit Noonpackdee, Deputy Commander of the Narathiwat Task Force.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent every year on development projects aimed at trying to win the "hearts and minds" of the people in order to isolate the militants, but he admits it is not the only solution.

"In finding a political solution we need to talk and we need to listen to many groups including the people who are in this area."

New generation

The big problem is the groups never say who is responsible for attacks and the only evidence of what they want are from leaflets they leave behind.

They operate in small cells without clear leadership or co-ordinated structure, but talks have been going on with some of them, and with the groups who operated in the 1960s and 70s.

Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch Srisompob Jitpiromsri says some form of autonomy is needed to solve the problem

Their ability to have any command or control over the new generation is questioned. They are now recruited along more radical Islamist, rather than purely separatist, rhetoric and attack civilians and Muslims as well as Buddhists.

Some say the old guard are no longer relevant, but Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch which monitors the violence, believes they need to be part of the dialogue.

"Many of the local units make independent decisions to carry out attacks any time, so it is very difficult, even amongst themselves, to control the activities on the ground."

He says a deal will only be done if the Thai government gives ground to appease the majority and isolate the violent minority.

"Some form of autonomy should be considered as another factor to solve the problem. We might use the model England used for Northern Ireland. It doesn't threaten the unitary state."

At Pattani central mosque the imam says most people do not want to be independent of Thailand, but he asks "What have the government ever given us? Why do we not get justice from the government?"

The perception is a lack of respect for Malay Muslim identity, culture and traditions.

If the government can change that, the extremists may find their arguments for separatism being diluted and their campaign of violence becoming increasingly isolated among the people.

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