BANGKOK, Thailand -- After staging a bloodless, right-wing coup to expand their political and economic control, Thailand's U.S.-trained military has been unable to crush Muslim guerrillas in the south, resulting in hundreds of Buddhists fleeing in fear.

In one of the world's worst Islamist insurgencies outside of Iraq, Thailand's southern separatists are using the strategy of Afghanistan's Taliban who torch government schools, and the horrific tactic of Baghdad's beheadings -- resulting in dozens of burnt schools and more than 25 decapitated victims since 2004.

Enjoying small but spectacular victories on almost a daily basis, southern Islamist guerrillas have kept their leaders, and organizations, anonymous to avoid arrest.

"This land must be separated between Muslims and the non-believers. This land must be liberated, and an Islamic system must be its foundation," warned a leaflet distributed in the south, which the military showed reporters.

"This is a land of war that is no different from Palestine and Afghanistan," it said, tightening a demand for a separate homeland.

"This land is not the land of the Thais, but the land of Fathoni Darulsalam," said the document, referring to a previous Arabic description of the region.

It was signed by the "Islamic Warriors of Pattani State" -- one of several obscure jihadist groups.

A leaflet found in Yala province, written in Thai and Malay languages, denounced authorities as "Satan in human disguise".

Bangkok's plans for the south are designed to "to split the Muslim community," it claimed.

"Other flyers that surfaced in Narathiwat's Sisakorn district called on Muslims not to buy, or benefit financially from, lands abandoned by Buddhists, saying these plots would be reserved for underprivileged Malays once the Pattani region was liberated from the occupying Siamese," reported the Nation newspaper.

"Malaysia used to help us, but we didn't behave. They had handed over people [suspected insurgents] but we killed them," said Thailand's coup leader, Army Chief General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin.

"Now they are reluctant to help," Gen. Sonthi told reporters on Nov. 27 in published remarks, before crossing the southern border to Muslim-majority Malaysia for a one-day talk about the problem.

"The fact is that the security forces under the Thaksin administration often acted violently, took part in two bloodbaths at Tak Bai and the Krue Se mosque, and still stand accused of dozens if not hundreds of southern men 'disappearing'," said an editorial in the pro-coup Bangkok Post.

A breakdown of 1,730 deaths caused by the unrest since January 2004 revealed more than 1,000 were Muslim -- apparently killed by confused, poorly disciplined security forces, and by guerrillas to stop Muslims collaborating with this Southeast Asian nation's Buddhist majority.

About 680 of the dead were Buddhist, seemingly slaughtered to disrupt their work, and frighten other Buddhists into leaving, according to the respected Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani.

Unable to militarily defeat the ethnic Malay-Thai rebels, or find any core Islamist leaders to negotiate with, Bangkok is now worried their shadowy enemy will hoist flags above a self-declared "Islamic Pattani Nation," further demoralizing security forces and Thailand's 64 million population.

"If the situation is left like this, in three years we'll see a new country in the deep south," said Prasit Meksuwan, an adviser to the south's Teachers Federation which is trying to stop Buddhist teachers fleeing.

The government gave guns and training to hundreds of teachers willing to stay in rebel-infiltrated zones, and troops transport teachers to and from guarded schools.

But more than 1,000 isolated schools shut down after the new term began in November.

Amid other assaults, a 48-year-old teacher was shot and burned to death at his school in November in Pattani province, while other colleagues and students watched in terror.

Rebels complain the schools tell lies about the south's three southern provinces -- Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat -- which formed part of an independent Malay kingdom before Thailand annexed the rubber-rich, coastal region about 100 years ago.

Malay-speaking Islamists demand schools focus on lessons gleaned from the Koran, written about 1,300 years ago.

They oppose the schools' curriculum which absorbs youngsters into a 21st century Thai-speaking society, obedient to a god-free Buddhist philosophy and Bangkok's monarchy.

Insurgents also assassinate saffron-robed Buddhist monks who collect alms during barefoot walks through villages and towns, even when armed troops escort the clergymen.

The shock of seeing blood-splattered monks sprawled in the street, dead or injured, plus reports of nearby assaults, recently prompted about 200 Buddhist villagers in Yala province to flee.

Carrying meager belongings, they clustered in Buddhist temples, grateful for sacks of supplies sent by Queen Sirikit, and hoping for financial compensation and resettlement.

Bangkok's monarchist coup leaders used tanks, armored personnel carriers and Humvees to topple Thailand's elected civilian government on Sept. 19, and tore up the constitution to ensure amnesty for themselves.

Since then, they have mostly focused on investigating former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, his billionaire family, and his political cronies for alleged corruption.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is