The killing started early in Damabuah village. From first light on the morning of December 11, people had gathered at the village teashop, an open-sided shack with a corrugated iron roof, as they usually did before heading to work in nearby rubber plantations: the mainstay of the economy in Thailand's deep south. Young and old, they sat on plastic chairs and chatted as they ate snacks and drank tea - unaware that six of them would be dead within the hour.

"I was sitting with my back to the road when the firing started. It was about 7am. I got under the table to take cover. Then the guns stopped and people began to cry and scream," says Hamisi Jehdo, a 23-year-old rubber tapper, speaking to Post Magazine just a few hours after the shooting. Sitting on the porch of his wooden house, he is in a state of extreme shock.

Hamisi's great-uncle died that morning, along with five others - including an 11-month-old girl - when a pick-up truck stopped outside the teashop and three men in the back sprayed its customers with automatic fire. They fired 42 rounds in little under half a minute, before speeding away. Their victims died for one reason only: because they were Muslims.

Within hours, as Islamic tradition dictates, the funerals had taken place. The young father of Infami Samoh, the dead baby, carried his daughter in outstretched arms to the village burial ground, where she was laid to rest in a shallow, muddy hole under a Mangosteen tree. Fellow villagers followed silently behind while the army, police and local militiamen who had gathered in Damabuah after the shootings watched from the side of the road, their rifles clutched to their chests.

The infant's death was shocking only because she was so young. She was just one of the almost 5,400 people who have been killed in this region in the past eight years. More than 9,500 others have been injured since 2004, when the long-festering grievances of the majority Muslim population in the deep south erupted into outright guerrilla warfare against the overwhelmingly Buddhist Thai state.

About 80 per cent of the 1.8 million people living in the three provinces at the southeast tip of Thailand - Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala, the latter two of which border Malaysia - are ethnic Malay Muslims. They speak Malay as their first language and use Arabic script to write, and many want their own independent state.

"The land here was colonised by the Thais. In the past, we were a country, the Sultanate of Pattani. We want to take it back. We don't want to be part of Thailand or Malaysia; we want to have our own country," says a senior representative of the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), one of the two main separatist groups in the area.

Just a couple of hundred miles from the tourist playgrounds of Ko Samui and Phuket, where holidaymakers enjoy idyllic beaches and dance at all-night raves, the insurgency has turned the deep south into an increasingly bloody battleground. Appalling acts of violence such as the teashop massacre in Damabuah are commonplace, as relentless waves of revenge attacks by both Buddhists and Muslims fuel the conflict.

A few hours after the killings in Damabuah, an isolated village in Narathiwat province, a group of gunmen walked into a school canteen in Pattani and shot dead two Buddhist teachers in front of their pupils. Hundreds of schools have gone up in flames and m ore than 150 Buddhist teachers have been assassinated, simply because they are regarded as symbols of the Thai state.

Gruesome tit-for-tat killings occur on a daily basis, with the victims gunned down as they ride through villages fringed with coconut trees or beheaded as they work in the rubber plantations. Car bombs explode in the crowded markets of small towns while ever-more sophistica-ted IEDs (improvised explosive devices) target the Thai security forces.

With more than 20 million visitors a year and tourism contributing an estimated 6 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, Thailand is fiercely protective of its reputation as the "Land of Smiles". But the beaches in the deep south are deserted and foreigners nowhere to be found. Buddhist monks are confined to their temples, able to leave only under armed guard, while mosques are riddled with bullet holes from reprisal attacks.

Home to the most violent internal conflict in Southeast Asia, according to a report by the International Crisis Group think-tank in Brussels, the entire region is under an emergency law that gives the 150,000-strong security forces special powers. Military convoys rumble through towns and villages, checkpoints dominate the roads and mobile phone signals are frequently jammed to prevent insurgents using them to set off a bomb or an IED, nearly 2,500 of which have been planted since 2004.

An estimated 12,500 to 15,000 separatists are ranged against the army, police and paramilitary groups.

"We are normal people. We're rubber tappers, rice farmers, small-business owners, teachers. We are present in every village in the deep south," says the Pulo representative, a well-spoken, middle-aged man wearing a round kopiah hat, the headgear worn by Muslims in Malaysia. He asks not to be named, or for the location of the interview to be revealed.

In recent months, there has been a notable escalation in the violence, as the other main insurgent group, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi (BRN-C), steps up its assault on the deep south's school system. So many Buddhist teachers are being attacked that, late last month, Thailand's deputy education minister proposed issuing bulletproof vests to every one of them.

Successive governments in Bangkok have insisted that all pupils in the deep south be taught only in Thai, despite the fact that in many of the schools the pupils are solely Malay-speaking Muslims. Now, not only Buddhist teachers but the schools themselves are viewed by the insurgents as targets and evidence of Thailand's "occupation" of the deep south. Almost 350 of them have been burned to the ground since 2004.

At the Bang Maruad School in Pattani, a primary school whose 575 pupils are all Muslims, the children - the young girls in hijabs - play among the charred remains of their classrooms, the collapsed roof and blackened timbers lying all around them. A Thai flag flies from the ruins while a few desks and chairs sal-vaged from the wrecked building are stacked nearby.

"They set it alight at midnight on the 29th November. Now, the children have to study in a tent. They were very sad when they saw the damage and many cried," says Ateekhoh Waerdorloh, a teacher at the school. Ateekhoh, a Muslim, says she is unsure why their school was targeted. "So many places have had this happen. I think often about why they chose us."

One week before the school was razed, however, the imam in Bang Maruad village was arrested on suspicion of being the leader of the local BRN-C unit. And the nearby hills were once home to Pulo training camps. With Pulo stepping back from armed attacks to assume a more political role, it is the BRN-C, along with the much smaller Runda Kumpulan Kecil (RKK), that is thought to be behind much of the recent violence.

The insurgent groups operate in the shadows, rarely issuing statements or demands. The BRN-C is especially elusive, a network of loosely connected cells with no apparent leaders. The conflict is confined to the deep south, so its impact is not felt outside the region. At the same time, the country's media deliberately downplays the insurgency. Reports are frequently inaccurate, or focus on attacks on the Buddhist minority.

Thai politicians appear to be in denial about the scale and intensity of the guerrilla war.

"It's really time that people in Thailand realise that this is one of the most serious conflicts in the world. Nothing is going to get solved until it becomes a political priority. The problem isn't going away," says Professor Duncan McCargo, an expert on the conflict at Britain's Leeds University.

Two days after the killings in Damabuah, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra made a rare visit to the region to meet with teachers' associations to discuss the attacks against them. However, Deputy Prime Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung, the man in charge of security in the deep south, has yet to visit the area, despite having been in office for 18 months.

Chalerm is prone to making comments that betray the government's unwillingness to confront the insurgency. Last month, he told reporters that, "if the media stops presenting news about the southern unrest, the situation would improve". He also refused to accept a report by the Australian Institute for Economics and Peace that said an astonishing 5 per cent of all global terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2009 occurred in Thailand.

Instead, Thai media and politicians tend to describe the insurgents as mere gangs fighting for control of the smuggling business. That trade sees heroin and methamphetamine from Myanmar head south to Malaysia while oil, petrol and cigarettes travel in the opposite direction.

With the separatist groups so faceless and the press colluding to talk down the conflict, few Thais, or people outside the country, have any idea of the root causes of the insurgency. That ensures the government feels no real pressure to solve the crisis.

"We have met and negotiated with the government many times. We spoke to them again in November," says the Pulo representative. "Our conclusion is that the government doesn't want to do a peace deal. Their position is that they want us to surrender; that's all they say. The government are not sincere in wanting to solve the problem. It's just propaganda to show the outside world they are working to solve the problem."

Few people even in Thailand know the deep south was an independent sultanate as far back as the 13th century. From the 16th century on, it fell unwillingly under Thai rule for brief periods. It wasn't until the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 that it was absorbed into Thailand proper. Britain recognised Thai sovereignty over the region in return for Bangkok abandoning its claims to other parts of what were then the British-ruled Malay States.

Protests against Thai rule intensified after the second world war and a low-level insurgency began in the 1960s, but it was only in 2001 that the conflict started in earnest. Now, even Muslims who do not want an independent nation are calling for greater autonomy. They rail against officials imported from other parts of Thailand, the fact that only Thai is taught in schools and that there are no media outlets in Malay.

"Everything is in Thai. We don't have a newspaper in Malay, or a TV station or radio station; it's crazy. There are many old people here who can't speak any Thai at all," says one man in Pattani who does not want to be named. The links between the deep south and Malaysia remain strong, with some 200,000 Thai Muslims working in the country, and cross-border marriages are common.

The Pulo representative, however, denies claims in the Thai media that the insurgent groups are funded by Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia.

"Our money comes from fund-raising in the villages, with people paying a certain amount each month. It's not like a tax, but if one person needs a gun then they'll ask people to help them buy it." Some of those arms do come from neighbouring countries, he admits. "There are lots of weapons in Southeast Asia left over from many wars."

Nor is there any hard evidence of links between the separatists and the radical Islamic groups in Indonesia and the Philippines believed to have ties with al-Qaeda. Rather than create a fundamentalist Islamic nation, they say they plan to model their country on Malaysia.

"It will be a democratic state with an elected government, and it will be a mix of Islamic and international law," the representative says. "Those who were born here can live here. But Buddhists who came here from other parts of the country; that's different. If they came here as immigrants to take our land and jobs, then maybe they'll have to move back."

The years of war have created deep mistrust between Muslims and Buddhists. Many of the latter are leaving the deep south for safer places.

"They go to Krabi or Hat Yai, although sometimes they come back because they can't find work," says a female shopkeeper in Yala town, where concrete barriers line the streets in the city's commercial centre to limit the damage from motorbike bombs.

With the government apparently unwilling to contemplate a political solution, Thailand's security forces have been given a near free hand to crack down on the separatists. Both the police and army have been guilty of human rights abuses since 2004 while local militias founded to reinforce them stand accused of acting as death squads.

Most hated are the paramilitary rangers known as the Black Army. They were present outside Damabuah village on the morning of the shootings. But the deputy chief of police in Narathiwat province suggests other culprits.

"We think the attackers are the same group responsible for most of the violence here and they are Muslims," says Police Colonel Nittinai Langyana. When asked why Muslims would want to kill their own people, the colonel gives what is now the standard response of the security forces to allegations that some local militias target ordinary Muslims: "Sometimes, they dress up as rangers to make it seem like they [the rangers] are responsible. It's a way of creating problems for us."

The villagers of Damabuah are not convinced, pointing out that access to the village is down a single road.

"There are two Black Army checkpoints at each end of the village which the killers had to pass through," says Shukri Nikmea, whose 70-year-old father died in the teashop shooting.

"You draw your own conclusions on who did it."


SEE ALSO: the human cost of the insurgency.