Life in the towns of the three southernmost provinces of Thailand - Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala - appears relatively normal on the surface. Even with the threat of bomb attacks and the presence of security forces in large numbers, the towns are busy during the day - although eerily quiet come nightfall. The ethnic Malay Muslims, who make up 80 per cent of the population in the region, and their Buddhists neighbours work and live alongside each other without any obvious hostility.

The deep south is largely rural, however, and it is in the countryside that the relentless cycle of tit-for-tat killings rages. Amid the rubber plantations, coconut trees and rice paddy fields, a stark apartheid operates, with villages either Muslim or Buddhist.

The sheer scale of the conflict in Thailand's deep south, and the fact that it is taking place in just three provinces, each with a relatively small population, means almost no one in the region has been left untouched by the insurgency. More than eight years of guerrilla warfare between Muslim separatists fighting for an independent country and the Thai state has had a devastating impact on children and farmers, Buddhist monks and local officials.

Children must come to terms with their teachers being assassinated and their classrooms being burned to the ground 

Children must come to terms with their teachers being assassinated and their classrooms being burned to the ground as the insurgents step up their assault on the school system, which they regard as symbolic of the Thai "colonisation" of their land. Rubber tappers and rice farmers are the victims of reprisals just because they are Buddhist, or Muslim. And monks, too, have become targets, alongside the Thai security forces and local bureaucrats.

At Ban Jarang, a village in Pattani province, local defence volunteers and paramilitary rangers known as the Black Army, stand with their weapons to hand as children play in the school yard. The rangers are a new presence in the village, which until recently had avoided being caught up in the violence.

"We never had any problems until six months ago, when my house was raided," says Surin Pattangjirankul, head of the all-Muslim community. Like all Muslims in the deep south, he prefers to speak Malay rather than Thai. "A group of gunmen came and took the weapons the local defence volunteers were storing there. I was at the mosque and there was just one volunteer there. They made him lie down, put a gun to his head and took the weapons."

Worse was to come.

"Two weeks ago, a Buddhist man was shot dead in the village," says Surin, pointing towards the spot where he died, on the single road that runs through the village. "It was the morning and he was driving through on his motorbike when he was shot. Maybe it was a private argument, or perhaps his killers were insurgents. We don't know. But ever since then, the people in this village have been nervous that the Buddhists will come and take revenge."

SEE ALSO: An overlooked conflict 

The victim of the shooting was on his way to Na Phrao, a Buddhist village a 10-minute drive away.

"I went to Na Phrao to explain that the villagers here had nothing to do with the killing," says Surin. "The village elders there understand that. But some of the young guys are hot-headed and they might take revenge. That's why we have the Black Army here now."

Relations with the neighbouring Buddhist village were tense, even before the killing. "No one in this village will stop there unless they know someone," says Surin. He says Buddhists refer to Muslims as " kheak", Thai for "guest". It is a derogatory term that implies the Muslims are immigrants from Malaysia. In turn, Muslims in the deep south call Buddhists " Seae" (or "Siam", Thailand's name until 1939 and a reference to how they hold Siam responsible for colonising the region).

In Na Phrao, the Buddhists are equally wary of their Muslim neighbours.

"We feel afraid since the shooting," says Arun Srisuwan, a mechanic who works for the local government. "Even before the incident, if we didn't know a Muslim, we wouldn't speak to them. We don't trust them. They could be insurgents, or they could just be bad people, and we don't know what they will do."

Like most people in the region, Arun keeps a weapon at home: "I have a shotgun from the local government. We've always lived together and been neighbours with the Muslims. But now it is different. We have to protect ourselves," says the father of three. Illegal weapons are also readily available in the region, with handguns cost-ing as little as 5,000 baht (HK$1,270), a small price to pay for revenge.

Arun's family has been living in the deep south for generations, as have many Buddhists in the countryside. Even if the region became independent, he says, he wouldn't want to leave, despite the fact that Buddhists now make up only 20 per cent of the population.

"I'm a Pattani person; my ancestors are from here," he points out. "We would stay if the Muslims let us. But I think it is going to be very hard for the deep south to become an independent country. There are too many [soldiers] here and I don't think the government would let it happen."

Of all the rural dwellers, it is the plight of the few remaining Buddhist monks that appears most desperate. Monks are traditionally reliant on their communities for food and many temples have had to close because, with Buddhists moving away in ever-greater numbers, there are no longer enough people to feed them.

Just two monks remain in residence at the temple near Na Phrao. Much of the complex has been given over to a Black Army base, and the entrance resembles a typical police station in the deep south, with its coils of barbed wire surrounding a temporary guardhouse.

"We feel better with the Black Army here because they protect us," says Boonpia, for whom the temple has been home for 20 years. "No one has come to attack us, but we have been threatened by young Muslim gangsters. They throw stones and bottles over the walls."

He is no longer able to leave the temple to collect alms: "It's not safe for monks now. Maybe someone will try and shoot us if we go to the village. It's sad. Until last year, we could walk around. Then a monk was shot in Pattani Town and the government decided it was better for us to stay inside the temple."

Surrounded by a pack of near-feral dogs, Monk Boonpia appears deeply affected by his enforced isolation and unable to comprehend why his orange robes and shaved head should make him a target.

It is the children, though, the most vulnerable residents of the deep south, on whom the conflict has taken the greatest toll. With the violence having claimed almost 5,400 lives to date, the number of orphans is rising steadily. Almost 160 Buddhist teachers have been killed in the past eight years and close on 350 schools have gone up in flames.

Early in the morning in Ban Takamcham village, in Pattani, parents bring their children to school under the watchful eye of rangers and police toting M-16 rifles. The village lies in Nong Chik district, one of the hotbeds of the insurgency. About 10 per cent of the 2,500 villages in the deep south are part of what the Thai security forces call the "red zone", the most dangerous parts of the region. Ban Takamcham, with the walls of its houses carrying painted slogans calling for an independent Pattani state, is one of those villages.

Less than three weeks before Post Magazine's visit, the headmistress of Ban Takamcham's school was assassinated as she drove her motorbike to work.

"We all remember the day she died. Everyone cried," says Zulkiflee Hajikasar, a 12-year-old pupil at the school. Like all his classmates, Zulkiflee is a Muslim, as are his teachers. "We had Buddhist teachers before, but they have all been transferred since our headmistress was shot."

Zulkiflee has grown up with the separatists' struggle for an independent nation as the backdrop to his life.

"I used to feel scared when I saw all the people with guns. Now, it seems normal," he says. But if the children are getting used to being around the army and police, there is no doubt that eight years of conflict has left many traumatised.

A 2010 Thai government study found that almost a quarter of all 11 to 18-year-olds in the deep south were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an illness normally associated with soldiers who have served in theatres of war. The situation is worse in the red zone.

"We think 100 per cent of the children in the district are depressed," says Angkhana Wangthong, head of the mental-health clinic at the Nong Chik District Hospital. "When we talk to them, we find many are always thinking about people dying. Some have suicidal thoughts, or they suffer from low self-esteem."

Worst affected are those who have lost parents but those, like Zulkiflee, who have had their teachers killed are very much at risk, too. Angkhana's team travels to every school in the district to assess the children.

"We treat the most depressed individually. Others, we treat in groups. We help them with behavioural therapy mostly," she says.

Children from the deep south tend to be the worst performers in exams in Thailand. In part, that is because the tests are in the Thai language and most of the students speak Malay at home. But it is also to do with the desperate shortage of teachers, something the 2,500 baht a month in danger money they receive on top of their salaries has failed to solve. Some schools are so short of teachers they have been forced to use soldiers instead.

Also at grave risk are the officials sent to the deep south from other parts of Thailand to govern the region.

Chathep Permsap is the assistant district chief of Nong Chik. A genial 34-year-old, his home lies at the other end of the country, in Isaan, in the far northeast.

"Of course, I was a bit worried when I was told I was being sent to the south," says the career civil servant. "But I've been here six years and I have a local girlfriend now. She's more worried about my job than I am."

For all his downplaying of personal danger, Chathep knows the insurgents regard him as an interloper.

"I am a target, so I don't tell people my movements. Often, I change the way I drive around the area. I always enter by one way and leave by another, and I never stay too long in any one village," he says.

With the violence intensifying, even as the presence of security forces in the region has reached an all-time high of 150,000, a few senior government figures in Bangkok are believed to be considering making concessions to the Muslim population of the deep south. One idea that has been touted would see the governors of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala being elected and given a degree of autonomy from Bangkok to run their provinces.

Officials on the ground such as Chathep, however, still seem to regard the insurgency in hopelessly optimistic terms, while also displaying a paternalistic attitude that makes it easy to understand why many locals regard the Thais as an occupying force.

"I think the situation is stable and will improve," he says. "I think we will win the hearts and minds of the people here and get them to trust us. Before, we just used to tell the locals what to do, but now we consult them."

By far the most dangerous job in the deep south is bomb disposal. About 2,500 bombs and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) have been planted in the region since 2004. Almost half of those have been in Narathiwat province, where Police Major Chane Warongkhapaisit runs the bomb squad.

"We [have] defused about 500 of the bombs planted here," he says.

In his 12 years on the bomb squad, the major has been blown up four times and caught in an ambush twice. A big man for a Thai, he strips off his overalls and turns around to reveal a fist-shaped hole in his back, the legacy of one of the blasts he was caught in. The 15 men on his team come from all over Thailand and display the coolness and sense of humour their job requires.

The insurgents have evolved from making primitive bombs to producing far more sophisticated devices over the past eight years, says Chane: "For the first four years, they used alarm-clock timers. Then they started using digital watches. Now, it's mobile phones and remotely detonated bombs that are much bigger than before. In October, we had to defuse a 100kg bomb with the explosive packed into a gas canister."

Larger devices target the armoured personnel carriers used by security forces, but civilians are often caught in the explosions, especially when they occur in towns. Tiny IEDs are laid in the rubber plantations, where both ordinary Buddhists and Muslims work. Generally, they don't kill. Instead, they maim their victims; more than 9,500 people have been injured in this way since 2004.

With no real resolve to find a political solution to the crisis, many more seem destined to suffer before an end to the bloodshed can even be envisaged.