It is said that the dead tell no tale. But in death, the widows of two of south Thailand’s most wanted militants reveal the deepest thoughts behind men involved in the region’s most violent conflict.

Hasem Bueraheng and Maroso Chantrawadee were among some 60 armed insurgents who mounted a daring raid on a marine base in Thailand’s Narathiwat province. The mission failed. Both were among 16 militants killed while the rest fled. Their widows - Prachaya Binjehmoodor and Rusnee Maeloh - see them as martyrs. They tell us about the turning point that caused them to fight for an independent Pattani state, and what life was like in the years that followed.

Ahmad Somboon Bualang of the Thailand Center for Muslim & Democratic Development takes us into the history of the region. The southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani were part of the Malay-Muslim sultanate of Pattani. In 1909, it was annexed by Thailand, then known as Siam. Over the decades, resistance against Buddhist-centric Thai rule has been simmering with the ebb and flow of separatist movements fighting for a Malay-Muslim state.

Decades of unrest turned the region into one of the poorest parts of Thailand. 2001 saw a new generation of fighters breathe life into the insurgency, with full escalation three years later.

On April 28, 2004, more than 100 militants carried out terrorist attacks against 10 police outposts in the region. Thirty-two gunmen retreated to the 425-year-old mosque, regarded by Muslims as the holiest place in Pattani. After a tense seven-hour stand-off, the army stormed in, killing all the gunmen. The family of a slain gunman explains why he took up arms. A local religious leader tells us how the disaster inflamed local sentiments against the government.

Then months later, on October 25, things came to a head in Narathiwat’s Tak Bai town. Six men were arrested for supplying weapons to insurgents. Locals demonstrated to demand their release. The army used tear gas, water cannons and even shot at the crowd, killing seven men. Hundreds more were arrested, made to take off their shirts, lie on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs, and the soldiers threw them into trucks, stacked five or six deep. By the time the trucks reached Pattani five hours later, 78 men died of suffocation.

We discover that Hasem Bueraheng and Maroso Chantrawadee were both survivors of this horrific journey. Together with many young men across the region, the violent events of 2004 sealed their determination to fight against Thai rule, seen to marginalise and assimilate the Malay-Muslim identity of the region.

The year 2004 became a turning point in the southern insurgency. In the years to come, near daily attacks have claimed more than 5,000 lives in the region. No government in this predominantly Buddhist nation has been able to get a grip on the unrest, despite measures ranging from brutal to conciliatory.

But Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, wants to change that. She assigned Lieutenant General Paradon Pattanatabut, the secretary-general of the National Security Council (NSC), to oversee the what she hopes will be a historic peace process.

Brokered by Malaysia, talks began in Kuala Lumpur in February this year. At the other end of the table, were members of separatist group Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), led by Hassan Taib. The "peace agreement" represents the first time that a Thai government has given this much legitimacy to the Malay-Muslim separatist movement. They hope this will attract other groups to the table for future talks.

Yala-based journalist Don Pathan and Sunai Phrasuk of Human Rights Watch explain how the root of the problem runs deep. They say the series of peace talks have hit the wall as both sides come up with demands that the other does not accept. Serious doubts have also been cast over the influence of BRN representative Hassan Taib, as violence escalated despite peace talks. Pathan and Phrasuk describe how the older insurgents actually have little control over the militants on the ground, and death squads backed by security forces have also been involved in vigilante violence. It becomes apparent that the militants on the ground do not trust the authorities and have continued to refuse the olive branch.

Kasturi Mahkota, the exiled leader of one separatist group, Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), has claimed responsibility for some recent hits and tells us they will keep attacking as long as they are not invited to the negotiation table.

Lieutenant General Paradorn Pattanabut says talks have to continue. He trusts Hassan Taib even though not all the separatists support him. He believes Hassan Taib, once a feared insurgent, can pull the various factions together. The Thai government will not allow independence or anything against the constitution, but is willing to discuss a degree of self-rule and amnesty for some of the wanted militants.

On the morning we join Thailand’s rangers on a patrol in Pattani province, a brazen bomb attack takes out five soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Narisorn Khemkhun explains the tactics militants use and how soldiers counter them. He relies heavily on veterans like Captain Saksin Chunthong, who has fought countless battles but says the hardest one is the battle to win the hearts and minds of the locals.

But that is a tall order. With the deep south under martial law, the army has sweeping powers to detain suspects for up to 30 days. Many accuse them of abusing powers with impunity. A small number of Islamic schools are suspected of breeding insurgents and the army has arrested teachers suspected of links to the separatist movement. Dr Ahmadkamae Waemusor of the Ulama Council in Pattani tells why us some traditional schools have departed from the true ways of Islam.

On the other hand, militants have killed nearly 160 government school teachers, Muslims as well as Buddhists. They are seen as Thai government officials. Teacher Sainoon Tohlae recounts how her colleague Chonlatee Charoenchon was shot at lunchtime in front of the children.

The violence in southern Thailand has become one of the most closely watched security situations in Southeast Asia. This edition of 101 East explores the background behind this complex conflict leading up to the much-touted peace talks and asks: What will it take to end the fighting in Thailand’s deep south?

Why has violence in Southern Thailand escalated despite peace talks? Tell us @AJ101East #souththailandpeace

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Source: Al Jazeera