NARATHIWAT, THAILAND —
In Thailand's three southern-most provinces, an Islamic insurgency has claimed more than 5,000 lives since 2004. Now, the government is holding a series of peace talks - for the first time in the nine-year conflict - with leaders of one of the insurgent groups.
In Thailand's deep south, it's common to see men in uniform at local schools. But unlike at institutions in the West, the men are often heavily armed.
Early this year, instructors and students at one Muslim primary school in Narathiwat province witnessed a cold-blooded killing as two men walked in during lunch-break and gunned down a teacher.
For grade 1 instructor Yai Nong, who witnessed the savage attack, the brutal act left many questions to answer - for everyone.
“All the students in the school asked us why they had to shoot our teacher and many of them talked about the incident in their own little groups. What did he do wrong? They ask us the same question,” Yai Nong said.
In the three southern-most provinces, known as the “Red Zone,” most of the targets are those associated with the central Thai government.
Until now, the attacks occurred in the Malay Muslim-dominated region bordering Malaysia, but there's always the underlying fear of escalation through support from international terrorist cells.
Analyst Srisompop Chitpirom, who documents the ongoing conflict on the "Deep South Watch" website explains.
“This is a theory that so long as you still have a certain level of violence going on and the government cannot solve the problem it will be the Pandora's Box and everything can come, including the international insurgency or the international terrorist organizations,” Srisompop said.
For now, it seems that the problem is contained within a region that is 90 percent Muslim and is deeply impoverished.
For Islamic Committee leader Abdulrahman Abdulsamad, it's not about religion but rather the neglect and alienation of the region by a predominately Buddhist Thai government.
“There is no justice for the local people and they don't trust each other. The Thais don't understand the language and don't understand the culture. Religion is not the main problem,” Abdulsamad said.
As a small step forward in the fragile peace process, both sides have agreed to curb the violence during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which begins next month.
But people still wonder if negotiations will be enough to bring eventual peace to the area.