Thailand's military in the southern border provinces is on high alert on the 13th anniversary of a wave of insurgent attacks that included the deaths of 32 insurgents inside a mosque.
The increased security comes as the Thai government is pressing on with informal peace talks with several militant groups amid a spike in violence in recent months.
The 2004 bloodshed came just three months after a resurgent militancy started in the largely Muslim southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Songkhla and Yala.
Since then, 6,500 lives have been lost as efforts to end the insurgency against the Thai state has ebbed and flowed with local communities bearing the brunt of the violence.
The April 2004 pre-dawn attack by dozens of insurgents was met by military force that left 107 insurgents dead.
Thirty two militants fled to the sanctuary of the 16th century Krue Se Mosque, in Pattani before being surrounded by the Thai military and later killed by soldiers storming the mosque.
Media images later showed the blood spattered walls of the inner rooms.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, an analyst and advisor to Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan, said security had been stepped up to coincide with the anniversary of the 2004 attacks.
“Moving into the important anniversaries – some of the local events, the security forces are instructed to step up their measures to make sure that peace and stability are secured in the area,” Panitan told VOA.
But late Thursday, Thai media reported five army rangers had been ambushed and killed during a patrol in the Narathiwat’s Chanee district, raising fears of an escalation in violence.
The years of violence have reaped a grim toll. Insurgent attacks and reprisals by the military have caused a constant spiral in the bloodshed.
Militant attacks have focused on symbols of the Thai state, officials and school teachers. More than 150 teachers have died in the violence. But the toll has included Muslims, the beheading of Buddhists, and arson attacks on schools.
Thailand is largely Buddhist but with a majority of Muslims in the Southern provinces. Analysts say tens of thousands of Buddhists from the region have been forced to migrate to Northern provinces to escape the violence.
The Thai military government launched peace talks in 2015 with the negotiations centered on an umbrella organization, MARA Pattani, representing several insurgent groups, with the Malaysian government supporting the peace process. The latest milestones in the talks are an agreement on “safe zones” in largely urban areas.
Mixed opinions on talks
Panitan said the informal talks are making progress, with the government open to meeting with all insurgent groups.
“The peace talks are on schedule in the South and now moving into a more difficult period, after getting technical measures and building up trust, they are now able to sit down and work out the new mapping of the more secure areas,” Panitan told VOA.
But other analysts say the talks with the military representatives are failing to show significant gains.
Outside the negotiations are militants under the National Revolutionary Front (BRN) and the main instigators of the increasing attacks in recent months.
The BRN rejected the current negotiations saying it is standing by a demand of negotiating directly with the government in Bangkok. It has also called for an impartial mediator and international observers to the negotiations.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has rejected the BRN’s calls for direct talks with the government.
Matthew Wheeler, an analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG), in emailed comments, said a recent spate of attacks across the region appeared “to be a statement of opposition” to the proposed framework agreement on safety zones.
“The militants continue to demonstrate that they have the capabilities to launch attacks across the region despite of the security measures by the Thai state,” Wheeler said.
Panitan said meetings are scheduled with representatives of the OIC in the coming days.
In early April, the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) at a summit in Turkey, lent its support to the Thai efforts in pressing on with dialogue with the MARA – Pattani.
But it also called for Muslim communities in the South to include “all stakeholders and to work for the common good to ensure a peace process can be effectively realized in the South,” the OIC said in an official statement.
Pakorn Preeyakorn, president of the Islamic Center of Thailand, also called for a greater role of Thai civilian and academics in the negotiation process.
“You need to put some people who are very keen in dealing with this kind of conflicts. Sometimes when you use those from the army, for example, they are not very keen in dealing with the peace talks,” Pakorn told VOA.
“So in this sense, we need to have some more people who know the real situation,” he said.
ICG’s Wheeler said the long term solution to the conflict requires dialogue and negotiation. “Crisis Group has long argued for greater political decentralization as a path out of the conflict,” he said.
But analysts say the Thai military opposes any calls by the insurgents for local autonomy, a major obstacle to ending to the violence.