PATTANI (AFP) — Housewife Malee Kwansawad no longer leaves her home after five o'clock in the evening.
Like many in Thailand's insurgency-torn south, the 41-year-old Buddhist says she lives under constant fear of drive-by shootings and bomb attacks. Security forces cannot protect her from separatist militants, she says.
All she can do is keep a vigilant eye out for any possible attack in a shadowy insurgency with a death toll that this week topped 3,000.
"I always look around very carefully whenever I go outside," says the mother of two teenage boys in Pattani, one of three Muslim-majority southern provinces wracked by violence since 2004.
Her 20-year-old nephew was among the dead. He was gunned down last year by two unidentified men in a drive-by shooting, forcing home the grim reality of the southern violence.
"This is my country. But I don't feel safe," says the Pattani native.
Although Thailand is a mainly Buddhist country, Buddhists like Malee are a minority in the three restive southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala, where Muslims account for 90 percent of the region's 1.7 million people.
The south was an independent sultanate until Thailand annexed it a century ago. Separatist violence has periodically flared since then, but reignited in early 2004 with rebels launching almost daily shootings and bomb attacks.
As the conflict enters its fifth year, Thailand has made little visible progress even in identifying the people or groups behind the attacks.
No group has claimed responsibility for the violence, and the government has yet to publicly identify any of the militancy's leadership.
Some experts have blamed ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, a former police officer, for exacerbating the conflict with his heavy-handed tactics.
Thaksin was ousted in a 2006 coup but came back from exile last month after his allies returned to power.
"Thaksin destroyed the human intelligence network when he took office in 2001 and disbanded key institutions that administered the south," said Zachary Abuza, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia at Simmons College in Boston.
Abuza also said that bureaucratic infighting among the army, police, interior ministry and the national intelligence agency was crippling efforts to ease the violence.
As Thai authorities struggle to contain the insurgency, killings have become more brutal as militants behead victims and burn their corpses, often leaving charred bodies in the road on public display.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thai consultant for Human Rights Watch, said terror tactics scared everyone, prompting wealthy Buddhists and Muslims to flee the south.
"Militants use fear, and it's working. People are so terrified. Many Buddhists have fled the south, which is exactly what militants want," Sunai said.
But being a Muslim does not guarantee safety either as rebels continue killing Muslims seen collaborating with Thai authorities.
Usman Hamah, a 29-year-old Muslim, said he lost his neighbour, a Muslim, in a gunfight in front of Yala Central Mosque two years ago.
"Militants are targeting ordinary people. I don't understand why they do that," said the soft-spoken man at the mosque.
"I used to discuss the conflict with my friends. But not anymore because attacks happen almost everyday. I'm tired of it," said Usman, who teaches English at a religious school.
For a 55-year-old Buddhist woman, who lost her husband in the insurgency, discussing the ongoing violence with strangers is "too risky."
"I don't want to talk about the southern violence. I am too afraid to discuss it," said the Yala native who declined to be named. Her husband was a policeman killed in a bomb attack in September 2007. He was only 47.
Before his death, the couple had talked about leaving Yala for northern Thailand to escape the worsening violence. But she was noncommittal then, which now torments the widow every day.
"If I had said 'Yes, let's move out,' my husband would have been alive," she said. "Now I am preparing to leave here all by myself."
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