Reporting from Pattani, Thailand — The Islamic teacher sat on the wooden porch of his house smiling politely, his infant son playing at his feet. Those who study the Koran are automatically suspect, Dul Nasir Hama said, adding that he's not a terrorist nor are his students part of the insurgency.
As he spoke, a Thai army patrol skirted the grounds of his madrasa in Pattani, a jungle area of southern Thailand with a long history of violent clashes between Malay Muslims and Thai Buddhists.
"They're afraid to come in here," he said. "They think I'll put a spell on them."
Authorities see southern Thailand's network of Muslim religious schools as a key source of recruits for an insurgency in which more than 4,000 people have died in the last six years amid the rebels' bid for an autonomous state.
Each month, about 100 sectarian attacks take place in southern Thailand, down from a peak of approximately 200 a month in 2007, according to Pattani's Deep South Watch.
On Thursday, six Buddhist villagers in Narathiwat province were found dead, believed ambushed, and 10 police officers and soldiers were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded as they were going to the scene of the shootings, police said.
"It's considered the world's third most intensive Muslim insurgency, after Afghanistan-Pakistan and Iraq," said Benjamin Zawacki, an activist with Amnesty International, which condemns rights violations on both sides. "And it's not just going to go away."
As part of counterinsurgency efforts, the Thai army has ceded more authority to home-defense and paramilitary forces. Many of these troops are poorly trained, critics say, further antagonizing the Malay-speaking Muslim majority in the troubled provinces just north of the border with Malaysia.
Local militia member Apiyud Rattanapinyo, 52, shows off his weaponry at his dingy restaurant in Tan Yong Mas, a town ringed by army checkpoints. The Thai Buddhist has two rifles in his truck, a .357 magnum pistol on his belt, four amulets around his neck and half a dozen teeth missing from his smile.
"Islamic teachers may say they're not involved, but many are lying," he said. "The militants are afraid of people like me because I shoot at them."
Rattanapinyo, a self-avowed protector of traditional Thai values who said he's been shot at four times and survived a roadside bomb, believes that a solution lies in forcing Islamic schools to teach more Thai language and culture.
"This is Thailand," he said. "If they don't mess with my homeland, I won't mess with theirs."
Far more hidden are the insurgents and their weapons. An estimated 90% of villages in contested zones have secretive attack cells, security experts say.
The movement appears to have some contact with Southeast Asia's Jemaah Islamiah, a group linked to the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch.
But the strength of the ties is a matter of debate and the insurgency has so far avoided attacking Bangkok, the Thai capital, or tourist resorts, presumably wary of attracting unwanted global attention in a post-Sept. 11 world.
In the last several years, less-confrontational army tactics and better intelligence have helped reduce the number of daily attacks. About half of the more than 4,000 people killed since 2004 were Malay Muslims and half Thai Buddhists, Srisompob said.
Yet entrenched interests make the standoff more intractable, some analysts believe, including a Thai army that has seen its budget soar.
"Not solving this doesn't do any harm to a lot of army careers and bank accounts," said Anthony Davis, an analyst with Jane's Defense Weekly.
Many local Malay Muslims believe Bangkok is trying to assimilate them out of existence.
"Anyone who speaks up is considered an insurgent," said teacher Hama. "Our voices aren't being heard."
In the adjoining madrasa, 125 boys in undershirts and sarongs are up at dawn for their daily routine: 12 to 14 hours studying the Koran.
Thai Buddhists, for their part, often write off the troubled provinces as a violent area racked by drug abuse. Mutual distrust is worsened by prejudice, mythology and years of tit-for-tat attacks.
"In southern Thailand, the truth gets distorted, lost and manipulated," said rights activist Zawacki.
Mali Jadarat, a teacher at Paknam Elementary School, saw her school administrator husband off to work one morning in 2006. A few hours later, he was dead, killed in his car by assassins with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol.
The community held a big funeral, but she was soon overcome by depression. A Thai Buddhist, she's more wary of her Muslim students now, despite being raised in a Malay Muslim village and speaking the local dialect.
A few miles away, Malay Muslim Khaliyoh Halee, 33, recalls the day in April 2004 when her 63-year-old father headed out for prayers. A few hours later, his body was torn apart by an army grenade after insurgents tried to take over the local Krue Se mosque.