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Thailand: The war you've never heard of

As Thai military arms for battle, a shadowy Islamic separatist network continues its beheading campaign.

BANGKOK — Each week in Thailand’s deep south, new blood is spilled in the name of a forgotten Muslim sultanate.

This guerilla war seems worlds away from Bangkok and Thailand’s neon-soaked coastal playgrounds. But it has ground Thailand’s military to a halt.

The campaign, little known outside the region, is being waged to restore Pattani, a small Islamic kingdom absorbed by Thais in 1908. So entrenched is Thailand’s southern violence that, when decapitated heads tumble across public streets, the killings are reported in passing.

Four such attacks in February nudged the movement toward its 50th recorded beheading. Since 2004 — when the separatist campaign sparked anew — more than 3,300 have died.

Now, as Thailand’s new ruling party plans a hearts-and-minds campaign, the military appears to be digging in.

With southern violence in mind, the Royal Thai Armed Forces is quietly amassing equipment and gear: Russian attack choppers, sleek Israeli assault rifles, armored Ukrainian and South African personnel carriers, and more.

Amidst one of Thailand’s worst-ever economic slumps, the military has set aside $214.6 million for the insurgency this year. It will also maintain a $557.9 million, six-year budget to set up a special infantry division devoted entirely to southern unrest.

The new arms deals signal only a slight step in the right direction, said Zachary Abuza, professor at Boston’s Simmons College and expert on Thailand’s southern violence.

What the soldiers really need, he said, is more training and more guts.

“They need troops willing to take the chase to the insurgents,” said Abuza, who characterized the Thai army’s strategy as a “passive defense.”

“You need rolling checkpoints penetrating the interior. For a while, they’ve had a fair number of troops down there, but you never see them. They never leave the barracks.”

“The ability to infiltrate the interior, where the insurgents hang out, is nil,” he said.

Anonymity defines the separatists, who remain mostly unknown to military leaders. Men sometimes emerge from rubber tree plantations, halt passing motorists, kill them and disappear. Or they ignite remote bombs, wait for police or soldiers to respond and set off secondary bombs hidden nearby.