It is hard not to see the violence in southern Thailand as anything other than a looming quagmire. In international terms, the Muslim separatist violence represents something of a forgotten war - a long-simmering, primarily local dispute that has yet to threaten Thailand's 'land of smiles' image.
On the ground in the deep south, the reality is far different. The toll of death beats to a daily rhythm: a bomb in a playground, a grenade lobbed into a popular noodle stall, a street-side assassination of a soldier, teachers taken hostage. Thailand is a proudly free country and yet in the south children now travel to school under guard with armed soldiers; Buddhist monks pray in fortified temples behind barbed wire and sandbags.
Since January 2004, deaths linked to the Muslim separatist insurgency have reached at least 1,300. Private security sector estimates warn the figure could be 50 per cent higher.
Talking to community leaders, military officials, politicians, analysts and ordinary Buddhists and Muslims alike, it is clear no easy solution lies ahead, despite the on-going state of emergency. Many fear the situation could get considerably worse before it starts to get better.
The uncertainty stems in part from the shadowy nature of the insurgency. In classic style, its leadership remains elusive, never coming forward to claim responsibility for the insurgents' actions, much less outline any political or military aims.
Yet the violence continues, betraying signs of an operation that appears both increasingly organised and willing to shatter previously held taboos, beheading monks inside temples and taking the fight inside schools.
The insurgents' strike 10 days ago, when they unleashed 50 bombings and shootings in one day, was described by Thai media as the single biggest challenge to the state's authority in decades. It came a day after the end of formal celebrations to mark King Bhumibol Adulyadej's 60 years on the throne.
Then there is the military and judicial crackdown ordered by Thailand's embattled leader, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. The presence of more than 20,000 full-time troops - numbers set to rise after the latest violence - has created as many problems as it has solved, many fear.
With no clear solution on the horizon, people are clinging to a string of desperate hopes - that foreign agitators will not seek to push local insurgents towards bigger bombs and wholesale loss of life and that the violence won't spread to the capital, Bangkok.
'We don't know exactly what they want or why they are doing what they are doing,' one senior military official said. 'While they stay in the shadows, we are left only to hope ... we hope that they won't take the fight northwards and we hope that they respect the king.'
Travel through the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, and it quickly becomes apparent that, militarily, it is a tricky place to defend.
Low-slung hills covered with jungle or rubber plantations run from the border with Malaysia, giving way to pockets of plains along a largely empty coast. Clotted with peat swamps, coconut groves and rows of rubber trees, it is often hard to see more than 200 or 300 metres in any one direction. It is only the roads that provide long stretches of unbroken vision - yet the roads are some of the more dangerous places, particularly at dawn and dusk.
It is quickly apparent, too, that the three southern provinces are quite unlike anywhere else in Thailand. Small Muslim villages dot the landscape, often built around a small mosque, with communal economic activity, such as fish drying or rubber tapping. There is little evidence of the commercial drive now so prevalent across much of provincial Thailand, such as advertising hoardings, golf courses, and tourist resorts.
The three provinces were once part of the ancient sultanate of Pattani, annexed by Thailand in a 1909 agreement with Britain. Since then, they have retained a Muslim majority of about 75 per cent, home to about 1.4 million of Thailand's 3.3 million Muslims. The southern Muslims are predominantly ethnic Malay, speaking the Malay dialect, Yawi. Many jobs in government, police and education are held by ethnic Thai Buddhists, however.
Long restive and home to several separatist movements, waves of violence have rocked the area in preceding decades, but nothing on the scale of the current campaign. Two previously active groups have been linked to the current insurgency but the scale of their exact role is hard to determine, according to Thai intelligence officials.
The leaders of the so-called Barisan Revolusi Nasional Co-ordinate are among the most sought after, having been linked to the successful raid on a military armoury in January 2004.
Then there is the Geragan Mujahideen Islam Pattani, whose members are thought to include 50 locals with experience of the Afghan jihad.
The armoury raid marked a major escalation in tensions that had risen progressively since 2001. In 2002, Mr Thaksin made what is increasingly seen as a grave miscalculation, disbanding the government's traditional counter-insurgency agencies in favour of an expanded military presence.
The number of insurgents has risen steadily, from an estimated 200 in 2001 to 3,000 now. Military and police officials believe they are increasingly turning to organised crime and the drug trade to fund their expansion.
Intelligence estimates show numbers swelled after October 2004 when hundreds of young men were rounded-up in Tak Bai near the Malaysian border after a protest and trucked north to Pattani. Seventy-eight were dead on arrival, suffocating inside the trucks.
Tak Bai is still widely talked about. The once pervasive sense of outrage may have dimmed but in its place is a sense that the military and round-up-the-usual-suspects policing have shattered trust within the community.
Muslim community leader Abdulrahman Daud speaks of an urgent need for both sides to find ways of restoring that trust. 'We must help the police and army but the police and the army must do more to understand the Islamic way of life,' said Mr Abdulrahman, chairman of Pattani's Islamic Council. 'People have to understand that the ordinary Muslims here are peaceful, separatism is just not an issue for ordinary people.'
It is a theme that echoes across many villages, even among the widows of victims of Tak Bai. Many said that while they did not support the insurgents, they also mistrusted the government.
'We acknowledge that we have nothing to gain by separatism, that there has been a lot of development over the past 40 years,' Mr Abdulrahman said. 'Of course there needs to be more economic, social and religious development. There needs to be new thought given to building a new understanding with the Muslim community.'
Mr Abdulrahman said he did not know who led the insurgency, or what they wanted. He said, however, that the leaders appeared to be as clever as they were secretive, distancing themselves from violence through a carefully plotted cell network.
At the end of the trail are disenfranchised village youths and young men paid to carry out the actual violence. When they are rounded up in village sweeps, they can only provide limited knowledge of the organisation behind the payment.
One veteran private security analyst said he believed the conflict could spark wider foreign involvement as it dragged on. 'It is primarily local but not exclusively so,' said Brian Dougherty, executive vice-president of Hong Kong-based risk consultants, Hill and Associates.
Noting how the Tak Bai deaths stirred outrage in the Middle East, he said the insurgents might be trying to force another overreaction to win international support from jihad groups. The recent kidnappings and beatings of two school teachers were one example.
'I believe that the militants have tried to force the government's hand to create another Tak Bai type of incident,' he said. 'While you can say [the government] reacted too slowly, their judicious handling has prevented that.'
Mr Dougherty said he believed the conflict might have killed more than 1,800 people since January 2004, compared with the officially acknowledged figure of 1,300.
As the region braces for fresh waves of attacks and Bangkok prepares to send more crack troops down south, a report detailing possible solutions is awaiting Mr Thaksin's attention.
Headed by respected businessman and former prime minister Anand Panyarachun, the National Reconciliation Commission's report is not easy reading for a government so far committed to a strong-arm solution.
Stopping short of any notion of actual autonomy, it demands efforts to boost Muslim engagement in economic development, education and the justice system. It also calls for the creation of regional reconciliation bodies involving both Muslims and Buddhists, noting rising tensions among ordinary grass-roots residents.
Civil servants in the deep south acknowledged the need to reach out to the Muslim community but also warned of the daily struggle against a hot insurgency.
The contradictions were on full display in a lecture session for teachers and nurses in Yala last week. The most popular topic for discussion? What to do if you are kidnapped.
'Remember to scratch your captors,' one nurse told her colleagues. 'That way you can capture their DNA under your fingernails so they can be identified later.'