After seven years of near-daily attacks that have left thousands dead, a long-overlooked insurgency in southern Thailand is slowly creeping up the political agenda ahead of looming elections.
The raging conflict exposes the Muslim-majority region near the border with Malaysia to relentless shootings, bombings and other incidents blamed on shadowy insurgents with no public face and whose exact aims are unclear.
Critics accuse the government of failing to address the grievances of Thailand’s Malay Muslim minority, including alleged abuses by the military and a perceived lack of respect for their ethnic identity, language and religion.
While the main contenders in Thailand’s July 3 election have included the far south on their campaign trails, few in the troubled region are optimistic the vote will herald a better future for them.
“All the parties are pretty much the same: some a little better, some a little worse. But they all treat us badly,” said a 48-year-old Muslim man who came to hear prime minister Abhisit Vejjaijva address voters.
“I’m going to vote ‘No’,” said Peng, a 50-year-old Muslim, throwing his weight behind a campaign to leave the ballot sheet blank. “People in the government have never kept their campaign promises. I’m fed up with politics.”
The government however insists that things are gradually improving.
“There has been a clear move towards peace and stability,” Abhisit told AFP during a short visit to the region last week.
“There’s now greater trust between people and local officials. Of course some violence continues but we won’t go back into a cycle of violence from the state,” he added.
About 4,500 people have died since the uprising erupted in 2004 under the premiership of controversial former leader Thaksin Shinawatra, including ethnic Malay Muslims who make up about 80 percent of the local population.
The insurgents are not thought to be part of a global jihad movement but rather are rebelling against a long history of perceived discrimination against ethnic Malay Muslims by governments in the Buddhist-majority nation.
The two main insurgent groups, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate and the Patani United Liberation Organisation, make no concrete public demands but are believed to favour greater autonomy or independence.
On average there are about 80-100 incidents linked to the insurgency each month in the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.
But foreigners have not been targeted and the violence is confined to a relatively small part of the country, allowing the conflict to fall outside the priorities of the Bangkok-based elite in government and palace circles.
“They’ve lost interest very rapidly after 2004. They just quietly hope the problem will go away,” said Professor Duncan McCargo, an expert on the insurgency at Britain’s University of Leeds.
For them, “nothing that happens outside Bangkok is of any significance.”
When questioned by AFP about their three top electoral priorities, none of the six main political parties named the southern conflict – instead they remain focused on the years of national crisis that followed the 2006 coup which ejected Thaksin.
The insurgency also receives minimal coverage in national media. Slain Buddhist monks do sometimes make the front page, but imams only get a brief mention.
According to Deep South Watch, which closely monitors the conflict, more than half of the victims are Muslims, many apparently targeted because they are seen as traitors for cooperating with the local authorities.
But on the ground, some efforts are underway by the parties to persuade voters they are serious about the issue.
Irfan Sulong, a candidate for the main opposition Puea Thai Party which is closely aligned with Thaksin, vigorously defended his party’s proposal to give some degree of autonomy to the region.
Thaksin has been accused by critics of worsening the conflict while in office by encouraging security forces to use heavy handed tactics.
But Irfan told AFP: “This problem of the south is already targeted in the policy of Puea Thai.”
Until now the idea of autonomy has been firmly ruled out, staunchly opposed by the ruling Democrats.
But Deep South Watch director Srisompob Jitpiromsri sees some signs of political change in the current election campaign, and believes the ruling elite cannot turn a blind eye to the conflict forever.
After a drop in attacks in 2008, the violence has escalated once again. The militants are now younger, more dispersed and harder to arrest.
“The southern violence has developed to a level that Thai politics can’t ignore. It has become a critical issue for the Thai elite,” said Srisompob, who sees the issue moving to “the forefront of the political agenda” in the future.
In the meantime, the local population adapts to the daily dangers, by avoiding short cuts at night, steering clear of obvious targets such as soldiers or police and, in many cases, buying a gun.
Pranee Chindaphet, 46, lost her brother to an attack in May. The policeman was killed in an ambush and she has received no information since about the investigation into his death.
“Right now I’m not sure who I’m going to vote for because I feel that the campaign hasn’t really come to me. No one has come to see me,” she said.
With a picture of her smiling brother in his uniform resting on her knees, she says timidly: “It seems like they can’t do it. They can’t solve the situation.”