Walking barefoot through fire and hot coals, the men of the Thai-Chinese community in Pattani city will perform a centuries-old rite next month - if security forces allow. Bearing the weight of a heavy effigy of Chao Mae Lim Ko Niao, a Chinese 'heroine' who took her life after her brother abandoned Chinese culture to become a Muslim, they will parade through the streets of the southern Thai seaport to commemorate her suicide. This highly charged Chinese religious and cultural celebration commemorates the 18th-century death of the young girl from China who had promised her mother to bring back her brother. He had married the daughter of the Muslim governor of Pattani and converted to Islam. She failed, put a curse on the construction of the local mosque - which remains only partially built - and hung herself from a tree. This yearly rite of the Thai-Chinese community is incongruously performed in the Muslim-majority province, one of several that straddle the border with Malaysia. For the local Muslims who watch from a distance, it is as alien as the Bangkok government's rule of their city and province. The southernmost provinces had been under Malay rule until annexation by Thailand in 1902. But this year's ceremony will demand tighter security. Pattani was last week rocked by a string of attacks. More than 50 soldiers and police officers were killed in the mayhem, which saw the burning of 20 schools, bombings, shootings and an audacious raid by insurgents on an army camp in Narathiwat province that netted more than 100 M-16 assault rifles. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has pointed the blame on fallen 'Muslim separatists'. Pattani used to be the epicentre of separatist dissent just a decade ago, and new intelligence indicates foreign Islamic militants may be involved. One possible reason may be that Mr Thaksin has thrown his weight behind US President George W. Bush's war on terrorism. The Chao Mae festival is just one of many facets of life in Pattani that defines the deep divide between local bureaucrats, the local Muslims and the business community - the latter mostly comprised of the descendents of immigrant Chinese traders. While Mr Thaksin recently called for more business and employment opportunities for the area, the danger now - with martial law in place and troops on the streets - is that the chasm between the government and Muslims will widen.