The retired provincial council speaker is an avid supporter of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and a friend of Interior Minister Wan Mohamad Nor Matha, the kingdom's only Muslim minister.

But in a clear example of how discussion is silenced by fear here, even Wan Abdullah, 64, pleads ignorance.

"Brother, no one knows who has done this," he said of the brazen attack in Narathiwat province, where four soldiers were killed last Sunday and 18 schools set ablaze. "If they knew, they'd put them in jail."

But minutes later, the commanding figure of Waeng village said in hushed tones: "This is not America. You cannot say everything you want here, that is my feeling. People are afraid, and so am I."

Wracked by violence and veiled in intense mistrust of authority, Thailand's deep south is seething with tension.

It has grown accustomed to occasional bursts of violence over the past few years which have been blamed by the government on ordinary bandits.

But people here dispute the government's public relations whitewash, blasting Bangkok's failure to eliminate flourishing "underground" businesses such as gambling and drugs.

"The people here don't fear terrorists," one well-placed Narathiwat source told AFP on condition of anonymity, "they fear the government, the military or the police."

The illicit trades, which include a booming sex industry catering mainly to Malaysian day tourists, an illegal lottery, gun-smuggling and drug-trafficking, are abhorrent to traditional Muslim values.

Fear of authorities

Several Muslim communities, including the district of Sungai Kolok, have been essentially hijacked by corrupt authorities, yet they are afraid to speak out, the source explained, for fear of repercussions.

"Authorities are listening in on people. They have their man in every village," he said. "It's very, very bad right now, and it's all very sensitive." 

Thai soldiers patrol past a couple of
Muslims in the south

Southern Thailand, where one is more likely to hear Malay dialects than Thai, moves at a slower pace than Bangkok, the teeming capital 1,000 kilometres to the north.

The predominantly Malay Muslim community thrived for centuries as an independent Islamic empire until it was incorporated a century ago into an economically stronger, overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand, analysts say.

The region was largely ignored by Bangkok until the 1970s when a Muslim separatist insurgency forced it to take notice.

Since then a campaign of assimilation has pumped billions of dollars into the southern economy. The separatists faded by the early 1990s as the first Muslim politicians hit the national stage and gave the minority a voice.

"If we compare things to 20 years ago, the situation is surely better now," Perayot Rahimmula, an assistant professor at Prince of Songkla University, told AFP, adding however that Thaksin's commitment to capitalism is proving highly controversial.

"Thaksin does not understand the situation here very clearly. There are many complicated issues: culture, religion, language, and of course our history."

Improvements

To the premier's credit, said Perayot, Thaksin has pushed the creation of a Halal food centre in Pattani, and an interest-free Islamic bank opened in September.
 
The government also builds mosques and financially supports local Muslim schools.

But Perayot stressed that Thaksin's program is laced with false promises: a planned "Rubber City" in Hat Yai district has not taken off, and a commitment to infuse Phuket, a resort island jewel in the central south with a prominent Muslim population, with one billion baht ( has seen no action.

Thai Muslim students walk past a
torched school following an attack

Thaksin's alliance with the United States has also raised the stress level, said Perayot. Thaksin remained neutral during the war in Iraq, but his decision shortly after Saddam Hussein's ouster to join the coalition and send 443 troops, two of whom have been killed, proved inflammatory in southern Thailand.

The premier, Perayot said, quickly restricted international funding to several Islamic schools and Muslim institutions. In July 2002, four Muslim men were arrested in Narathiwat on suspicion of belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional terror network with ties to al-Qaeda.

"It used to be better," Narathiwat council member Ahmad Benno said of the environment in the south, "but when they arrested those JI suspects last year everything changed."

The government's heavy-handed tactics caused profound distress, he said, and the latest detention last week of two men in Pattani, including an Islamic teacher, has solidified many people's distrust of authority.

Muslim politician Surin Pitsuwan, a former foreign minister and current MP for the opposition Democrat Party, railed in a recent opinion piece about the government's inability to get a grip on the turmoil.

The security establishment, he wrote in the Bangkok Post, "could lead the country into a quagmire of ethnic and religious strife in the entire south."

"The struggle is not for a cache of weapons," he added. "The important prize to be won is the souls of the majority Muslims in the south."