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Residents Struggle to Find Peace in Southern Thailand

More than 1,000 people have died in the past 21 months as violence in Thailand's troubled south continues unabated. Ron Corben recently traveled to the southern province of Narathiwat on a Thai government tour for journalists. He reports from Bangkok that the authorities, security forces and local residents are all struggling to restore peace.

A helicopter ascends into the sky over southern Thailand, a reminder of the 20,000 strong military force stationed in the region.

The provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani, are home to most of Thailand's Muslim minority. They also are the most troubled parts of this predominately Buddhist country, wracked by a violent separatist insurgency.

Despite the heavy military presence, the insurgency shows few signs of weakening. Killings occur almost daily. Over 1,000 lives have been lost since attacks began in January 2004.

Suranand Vejjijiva, a minister in the prime minister's office, spoke to a group of journalists touring the area recently. He says the insurgents have succeeded in creating a climate of terror.

"Right now, we cannot deny it, there are elements that have been proposing violence and these elements - although a minority - they have been effective in creating a terror campaign and that is unacceptable for us as a nation and it's unacceptable for the public," he said.

The insurgents say they want to break the three southern provinces away from Thailand. Even those residents who oppose the militants complain they face discrimination from the rest of Thailand and the region is one of the poorest in the country.

At Ban Rotan Batu in Muang District of Narathiwat, a village is being developed for the families of men who have been killed - both Buddhist and Muslim.

The village, sponsored by the Thai royal family, houses 103 families, each on a small plot of rent-free land. It is an oasis of security in a region of fear.

"The security is safe here," said Lieutenant Phichwit Nun Wannrat, of the Thai 4th Army, who oversees the village, known as "the Widows' Farm". "Security patrol every hour using the army, the marines and the paramilitary. And after six o'clock in the evening they declare curfew basically. That's for safety reasons," he said.

Sirima Saengtraichak is one of those trying to rebuild her life in the village. Her husband, a policeman, was gunned down in May 2004. While uncertainty lies beyond the perimeter, she has found safety from the fears that had haunted her at her home in Yala province.

She is happier and her living conditions is also getting better - and what is the most important thing is that she doesn't have to fear, to be afraid, of the insecurity outside.

The struggle to establish security has gone on within the military itself. Accusations of human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings and abuse of power have badly damaged the trust between security forces and the local community.

Security forces killed 30 insurgents who took refuge in a Narathiwat mosque in April last year. The insurgents were suspected of having taken part in a wave of attacks that day.

A year ago, troops killed six men at a protest rally and then 78 others perished after being crammed into trucks for transportation to detention centers.

There is a tit-for-tat rhythm to the violence. A drive-by shooting in Narathiwat last month left two Muslim villagers dead and four wounded. Local residents then took hostage two marines sent to the scene to investigate.

Rumors - spread by insurgents - blamed the marines for the shooting. After unsuccessful negotiations between the villagers and the security forces, youths linked to the separatists killed the two bound and gagged men.

Analysts say the aim was to provoke the Thai military and further escalate tensions.

Colonel Songwit Noonpackdee, deputy commander of the 11th Infantry Regiment, King's Guard, says the military will exercise restraint.

"We feel sorry for the families of the two officers. But we know we have to use patience and tolerance and we never take revenge because we know that it will create more problem," he said.

Colonel Songwit oversees 94 villages in the border region, with a population of more than 148-thousand people. He is seen as part of a new generation of U.S.-educated officers applying new methods to win the trust of local villages and in turn boost security.

"What I stress to all my troops just reach into the community. So we go into the tea-shop and try to exchange ideas - try to tell them what we are doing. They can reflect on a daily basis what they think about the military operations," he said.

Rusuewa Maseng, a local businessman, says he hopes the violence will end, but he has no idea when that will happen.

"But for [me] personally; I want this situation to end up as soon as it can because the people live in very, very bad," he said. "No one can go working very freely, most of them are scared [who] want to go to market - scared. Still have a scared. But in my home village it's OK."

Families remain fearful despite the additional security. Mothers say they worry each time their children and husbands leave the security of the village - afraid it will be the last time they see them alive.