BANGKOK, Thailand -- Thailand's U.S.-trained military, unable to win
its 15-year-long war against Muslim Malay-Thai guerrillas, announced
it is considering "autonomy or special administrative arrangements" in
the south where insurgents staged fresh assaults, adding to the 7,000
people killed on all sides.

"I do not demand a cease-fire first before the dialogue," said Gen.
Udomchai Thamsarorat, head of the National Security Council's Peace
Dialogue Panel.

"Autonomy or special administrative arrangements, yes we can talk and
we can compare it, or we can map it out if we believe the [Thai] prime
minister's instruction about decentralization for people to feel
comfortable under the government," Gen. Udomchai said describing a
compromise that Bangkok earlier avoided.

Academics and researchers suggested autonomy should allow southern
Muslims to run their communities including school curriculums, the
election of governors, wider use of Malay language instead of Thai,
family legal decisions, and other local issues.

But Islamic traditions in the south are blamed for at least 18 deaths
this year -- most of them babies -- from measles because many locals
fear the vaccine contains pork-based substances.  Officials deny using
such ingredients.

Muslim autonomy in majority-Buddhist Thailand will not appear anytime
soon, and may be an empty promise to pacify insurgents.

" Gen. Udomchai Thamsarorat has failed to progress with peace talks,
which to be meaningful must include the main [separatist] perpetrators
of the violence, the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN)," a Nation
newspaper editorial said on January 15.

"Udomchai is simply going to have to concede something to the BRN as a lure."

Gen. Udomchai did not elaborate on how autonomy might function during
his January 11 "briefing" at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of

To emphasize his remarks however he was flanked by officials from the
National Intelligence Agency, National Security Council, 4th Army
Support Command, and the Royal Thai Army's Internal Security
Operations Command.

They issued a statement that said Thailand would "promote" the "goal
of power sharing and decentralization on the basis of a plural line with the constitution of Thailand and international
norms, without any conditions leading to territorial separation."

The seemingly unwinnable guerrilla war has bloodied Thailand's
southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala and parts of

In the latest attacks, insurgents killed two Buddhist clergymen on
January 18 in Narathiwat province and injured two others after about
half a dozen rebels arrived at a temple on motorcycles.

Authorities believe the assault displays an escalation fueled by
guerrillas under Barisan Revolusi Nasional's (BRN) new leader, former
60-year-old Pattani province's Islamic teacher Sama-ae Koh Zari.

Mr. Sama is suspected of living across the southern border in northern
Malaysia and is more hard-line against Thailand's peace efforts
because his aim is independence.

Rebels also killed a police sergeant on January 13 when six insurgents
on three motorcycles rode up to a guard post during lunch in
Narathiwat province.

CCTV showed one of the rebels shooting into the police post's open
window while riding as a passenger behind another insurgent. Four more
guerrillas sprayed gunfire at the site.

On January 10, rebels disguised in military uniforms walked into a
Pattani provincial school and shot dead four armed defense volunteers
who reportedly had Muslim names and were supposed to be protecting
nearby teachers and students.

The guerrillas greeted the volunteers who were sitting down, said they
were inspecting the school, opened fire and stole their assault

More than 7,000 people on all sides have perished in the southern
violence during the past 15 years, according to independent
researchers and Thai media.

The military has talked peace with leaders of moderate rebels.

But the estimated 6,000 armed BRN insurgents who stage bombings,
assassinations and other hit-and-run attacks refuse to attend the

The guerrillas enjoy sanctuary by crossing Thailand's porous frontier
into Muslim-majority Malaysia where politically powerful Islamists
occupy a northern sliver among Malaysia's larger, more moderate and
diverse society.

Malaysia's government meanwhile also suggests autonomy for Thailand's
resource-rich but impoverished south.

BRN want to create a Pattani nation under Muslim traditions --
including children's Islamic education, women in headscarves and niqab
veils, and other disciplinary rules -- and stop Bangkok's Buddhist

BRN is inspired by a former independent ethnic Malay sultanate in the
same southern provinces which Thailand annexed in 1909.

Officials and analysts reject descriptions of BRN's fight as
religious, and describe it instead as an ethnic, nationalist struggle
to regain ancestral land.

But Muslim rebels have killed more than a dozen Buddhist clergymen
since 2004 and attacked several Buddhist temples, hoping to force
Buddhists to leave the south.

The army guards many southern temples and often escorts Buddhist monks
during their silent, single-file, barefoot walks each dawn, allowing
devotees to offer monks cooked food, new robes, toiletries and other

"All the monks can still conduct monkhood practices as usual," 4th
Army Region Commander Lt.-Gen. Pornsak Poonsawat said after the
January 18 killing of two Buddhist clergymen.

"But more officers will be deployed to provide security for monks
collecting alms," Lt.-Gen. Pornsak said.

Guerrillas do not control any territory in the south where more than
90 percent of the 1.7 million people are Muslim.

But the army cannot stop them, so the government, investors, residents
and Buddhist clergy remain fearful of an inevitable next attack.

Insurgents often detonate improvised explosive devices hidden in
motorcycles, cars and along highways, killing and maiming troops and

Rebels also target businesses, rubber plantations, automobile
showrooms, hotels, restaurants, shopping malls and other commercial
venues to convince ethnic Thais to leave.

The army meanwhile tries to fix their flawed strategy.

"We no longer head back to the bases when night falls, only to let
militants plant bombs that will go off in the morning," Lt.-Gen.
Pornsak said in October when he began his command.

"Patrols are being beefed up," Lt.-Gen. Pornsak said.

The military is unable to concentrate its full attention on fighting
the insurgency because many of its top leaders are running a
coup-installed junta in Bangkok, which keeps them focused on
complicated politics.

For example, Army Chief Gen. Apirat Kongsompong is also
secretary-general of the junta, which calls itself a National Council
for Peace and Order.

He also commands the junta's "peace-keeping force" scattered across Thailand.

Gen. Apirat was recently busy warning pro-election demonstrators that
they must obey the regime's censorship rules and "not step over that

Defense Minister Prawit Wongsuwon meanwhile is also deputy prime
minister and often embroiled in the junta's complexities.

The retired army general suffers allegations of corruption over a
personal million-dollar wristwatch ownership scandal which he denied,
avoiding prosecution.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has also been distracted for nearly a
decade with Bangkok's politics.

When he was army chief, he led a 2014 coup after playing a role in a
2006 putsch.

Mr. Prayuth is currently trying to schedule national elections after
postponing his earlier promised dates, including a now-defunct
February 24 poll which has yet to be rescheduled.

The southern insurgency meanwhile is not much of an issue among
election candidates.