In Thailand's Muslim-dominated south, an increasingly violent insurgency is breeding fear and mistrust among neighbors, and government efforts to bring peace have made little progress. VOA's Nancy-Amelia Collins recently traveled to the region and has this report.
Some call it a war; others describe the almost daily bombings, arson, beheadings, and drive-by-shootings in southern Thailand as an ethnic cleansing.
Whatever it is called, it does not change the fact that more than 2,000 people have died since a Muslim insurgency flared up in 2004 in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat.
While the majority of Thailand's 65 million people are Buddhists, around 1.3 million ethnic Malay Muslims live in the south.
Most identify more with Muslim Malaysia and the Melayu language than with Thai Buddhists.
Many have complained of discrimination and attempts at forced assimilation since Thailand annexed the region 100 years ago.
The shadowy insurgents have never identified themselves nor made any public demands. Officials and analysts widely believe they want to establish a separate Islamic state.
Monsour Salleh, an activist and businessman from Pattani town, sums up the views of many Muslims in the south.
"We have struggled through us that Islam is our discipline and way of life," Monsour said. "Of course this is because of Islam we can protect our identity, we can develop our soul, and we can develop our lifestyle. So the outside should understand that Islam is the main role of religion here, not Buddhist."
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political scientist at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University, says that as the violence escalates, the insurgents' goal becomes clearer.
"Now the idea of independence becoming clearer on the surface," Panitan said. "Now the idea of being a Melayu-based town, driving out other ethnic groups are being rising up on the surface."
The insurgents attack symbols of the government, including the armed forces, schools, businesses, workers in critical industries such as rubber, and places deemed un-Islamic, like bars that serve alcohol.
They also kill Muslims viewed as government collaborators.
The insurgents, however, primarily target Buddhists in what is believed to be an attempt to drive them from the region. Officials estimate tens of thousands have fled.
Many of the Buddhist temples here have closed and all are heavily guarded.
Prosonthon Pariyawithan is the senior monk of a Buddhist temple in Pattani.
"There are many temples here with no monks in them. The problem in southern Thailand is the insurgents want to destroy the Buddhist religion and kill Buddhist monks."
Although Prosonthon says residents must find a way to work for peace, he fears that will not happen.
"And I think the point of the violence here is to run the Buddhists out of southern Thailand," Prosonthon said.
Many Buddhists agree. Prayoondej Kanannruck is a lawyer and a member of the local government. He lost everything when insurgents set fire to his rubber plantation, and now, he says, he has lost faith in the government.
"The insurgents are destroying the region's economy and the government cannot control the violence or protect the people," Prayoondej said.
The government that took power in a military coup last September vowed to make peace in the south a priority, but has made little progress.
Francesca Lawe-Davies is an analyst with the International Crisis Group and has worked extensively in southern Thailand. She says the rising violence shows the security forces have failed.
"I think it signifies that the security forces have proved incapable of fighting this insurgency and that the rebels are increasingly confident and increasingly assertive," Lawe-Davies said.
The imam of the Central Mosque in Pattani, Yakob Hraimanee, says Buddhists and Muslims used to live in peace and must find a way to do so again.
"I believe the Buddhists think the Muslims are responsible for the violence and the Muslims do not know who is responsible for the violence. However, we must continue to try to bring peace to this land," Yakob said.
Kitipup Thongsin is a Buddhist and a teacher in Narathiwat. He says everyone, Buddhist and Muslim, is afraid.
"We cannot go out to work because we are afraid. Once night falls we never leave our homes," Kitipup said.
Many Buddhists and Muslims in southern Thailand say it is a tragedy that they, who once lived side by side in peace, now live in fear. Both sides worry now that trust and tolerance have broken down, this conflict could spiral out of control.