By Jason Szep
YALA, Thailand (Reuters) - The motorcycle bomb burned the 27-year-old woman so badly her father only recognized her by a tattoo. She lost half her face and an arm in the attack by shadowy Muslim separatists in Thailand's troubled deep south.
"The wound was awful. She must have suffered enormously," said her father, Athorn Buakwan, a Buddhist farmer, as he held a framed photograph of his daughter and recalled his frantic search for her on the afternoon she was killed and 17 others were wounded in a market in the capital of Yala province.
That February 21 attack is one of many illustrating the growing sophistication of a Muslim insurgency that has killed at least 4,500 people since 2004 in Thailand's three southernmost provinces, a region of dense jungles and rubber plantations just a few hours' drive from world-class beach resorts.
Contained within a far-flung fringe of Thailand, the conflict gets scant attention from international media. And yet the death toll it has brought over just seven years exceeds the casualties in Northern Ireland's three decades of troubles.
Now, as a security force of 60,000 to struggles to contain the violence, Thailand's July 3 election is reviving a debate over how to end it. With no easy answers and more violence looking inevitable, the campaign is touching a taboo in Buddhist Thailand: more political power for its minority Muslims.
A central question is whether the provinces on Malaysia's doorstep - Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani - should be allowed greater autonomy, a sensitive issue in Thailand which annexed the region in 1909 when it was an independent Malay sultanate.
Successive governments have sought, with mixed results, to assimilate the population into the Thai Buddhist mainstream.
About 94 percent of its 1.7 million people are Muslim, the dominant Malay religion, and about 80 percent speak a Malay dialect as a first language, according to a 2010 survey by the San Francisco-based Asia Foundation.
They chafe at the presence of Buddhist provincial governors appointed by the Interior Ministry in Bangkok and want more say in their own affairs - from adding Islam and local history to a Buddhist-influenced Thai school curriculum to bilingual street signs in Thai and Malay.
"If you talk to people on all sides of the political divide they recognize the need for decentralization of power, but it is unspeakable," said Duncan McCargo, a professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds.
"Admitting you need to decentralize power in the south is to admit there is a problem with the legitimacy of the Thai state. And to admit that is to go back to what the Thai state is based on, which is arguably the shibboleth of the nation, religion, king," he added. "Once you start to admit there is a problem with that, you are in danger of treasonous sentiments."
'THAIS ARE THAIS'
But the issue is making headlines. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva flew to Yala on Tuesday, promising more power to municipalities if his Democrat Party wins the election, a shift from past policies focused on economic and social development but not quite the semi-autonomy locals want.
After coming to power in 2008, he declared politics, not the army, would bring peace. But the unrelenting bloodshed, and the absence of a Muslim in his cabinet, could cost him votes.
After winning 11 of the region's 12 seats in a 2005 election, they took just five in the next poll in 2007. Locals say he will struggle to hold those.
His rival and national front-runner, Yingluck Shinawatra, a sister of ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra, said in Yala last week that she would turn the three provinces into a special administrative zone with one elected governor.
The proposal faced swift criticism from army chief Prayuth Chan-ocha, who was instrumental in the coup that toppled her brother. "Any action that may serve to undermine our strength or weaken state authority should be of concern," he said. "What is important is that Thais are Thais."
Not all Muslims embrace her idea, either. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed by the Asia Foundation opposed folding the provinces into a single elected government. Most want elected governors in all three provinces.
Yingluck has another problem: her brother is blamed for fuelling the dramatic rise in violence from 2004. He dismantled a southern security body and replaced it with an abusive and heavy-handed force. But while in power from 2001 to 2006, he appointed a Muslim to a ministerial role, winning some support.
Former army chief Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, a prominent Muslim who oversaw the 2006 coup, has launched his own party, Matubhum, and predicts he will win at least eight seats -- enough to have influence in a possible coalition government.
He reckons he can solve the conflict within the year. His solution: a ministry that would tackle the unrest and direct election of governors in the three provinces.
'LEANER AND MEANER'
The insurgency is becoming more tactical, better organized and more precise in its hits, experts say. In the first five months of this year, for instance, militants set off five car bombs, compared with just three over the whole of 2010.
The number of violent incidents, mostly gunfire and bombs, averaged about 70 a month from January to May, killing an average 41 people a month, up slightly from last year.
"What is happening is that these guys are getting much better at what they do. In effect, they are today leaner and meaner," said Anthony Davis, an analyst at IHS Jane's, a global security consulting firm.
"They are getting a bigger bang for their buck in terms of the resources they put in - from manpower to time, intelligence and preparation. Consequently the casualty rate is higher."
The insurgents' goals are murky but are believed to involve separatism or at least greater autonomy. However, Western diplomats believe only about half of the violence is insurgency-related, with the rest linked to the drug trade or organized crime.
Most experts believe attacks are organized by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) Coordinate, an offshoot of the Patani Malay National Revolutionary Front established in the 1960s to seek independence.
Another group, the Patani United Liberation Front (PULO), publicly calls for a separatist state and claims to control much of the insurgency.
"I hope this election will bring a strong Thai government. For the past 10 years, it has been very weak governments who cannot make any decisions," said Kasturi Mahkota, foreign affairs chief of PULO who lives in Sweden and has led talks with the Thai government on ending the fighting.
He said talks were on hold pending the election after a meeting in May in Manila at which the government agreed, as a gesture of goodwill, to try to release a PULO militant who was arrested by Malaysian authorities in 1998 and remains in a Thai prison.
"If they release him, that would show us if their side has power enough to make decisions," said Kasturi.
INSURGENTS FEARED MORE THAN TROOPS
Amid the almost-daily violence, Muslims and Buddhists who lived harmoniously together for generations are increasingly drifting apart.
"In the past, we were friends with Muslims," said Athorn, whose daughter was killed. "Now, it's distant. Both sides fear one another. It looks like they want Buddhists out so they can rule the area."
More Muslims have been killed than Buddhists in the insurgency because they are often targeted for working for the state or businesses tied to Buddhists, or for refusing to cooperate with insurgents. Indeed, the Asia Foundation poll showed more people fear the insurgents than the military.
"When I leave for work, I feel scared," said Aminah Kaming, a soft-spoken 30-year-old Muslim in Lam Mai district whose husband was shot dead by suspected insurgents while cutting grass. There were no witnesses and, out of fear, she refuses to speculate over who killed him.
(Editing by Alan Raybould and John Chalmers)