BANGKOK, Thailand -- The horror of 78 Muslim men who were forcibly tied up, laid out like logs in army trucks, crushed until their eyes bled and they suffocated to death, has not been forgotten despite the coup regime's apology.

Ethnic Malay Islamist insurgents continue to unleash fresh attacks against Thailand's Buddhist establishment, pro-government Muslim collaborators, and innocent people.

More than 1,700 people have been killed on all sides since 2004.

Southern Thailand's Narathiwat, Yala, and Pattani provinces suffer one of the world's bloodiest Islamist rebel wars outside of Iraq.

America gave helicopters, weapons, technical assistance, and training to Thailand's confused military to kill Muslim rebels in the south.

But some U.S. weaponry, including M-16 assault rifles and Humvees, were used by a Thai army faction when they staged a bloodless coup in Bangkok on Sept. 19.

Now the worried coup leaders are enforcing nationwide martial law, stifling free speech, blocking political activity, and installing a pliant government and constitution to defend themselves.

They fear a return by the toppled, self-exiled, billionaire prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.

While the military manipulates Thailand's lucrative politics, it is less able to battle Islamist separatists who win virtually all their daily assaults, and continually upgrade their impressive strategy, discipline and secrecy.

Muslim Malay rebels are so successful, that the military has no idea who its leaders are, or who to approach for negotiations.

Muslims who are perceived as rebel leaders -- and willing to talk with Bangkok about how to end the fighting -- are invariably later identified as retirees out of touch with the youthful insurgency.

The government earlier insisted Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratkalin could solve the insurgency because he is a Muslim, though not ethnic Malay.

But after Gen. Sonthi led the coup, he became a contradictory figure in the eyes of some Thais.

For example, when Gen. Sonthi flew to the northern city of Chiang Mai on Friday (November 3), reportedly to meet military colleagues and a famous fortune-teller, the pro-coup Nation newspaper archly noted:

"Although the army chief is a Muslim, he paid heed to the fortune-teller's advice and predictions."

Mocking the military's destruction of Mr. Thaksin's three-time elected government, a Bangkok Post editorial cartoon on Friday (November 3) portrayed an armed coup leader shouting "Charge!" while trying to drive an antique chariot pulled by two gigantic, baffled snails.

The same day, suspected Islamists killed two people and set fire to four government-run schools in Yala province, apparently to force Muslim children to study at religious institutions, and chase away families who disagree.

Local Muslim government official Abdul Kadir Awaekueji was assassinated, also on Friday (November 3), in Narathiwat province.

Within hours, Muslim food vendor Rohim Musor was shot dead in a nearby town where some residents claimed authorities killed him.

In a spectacularly graphic attack, five barefoot Buddhist monks, their saffron-colored robes splattered with blood, survived a bomb blast which killed a soldier who was protecting the monks during their morning alms-gathering in Narathiwat province on Oct. 22.

Bangkok's coup leaders now hope their apology, and a softer, "listening" approach, will convince the Islamists to surrender.

Human rights groups and others, however, demand prosecution for the military officers who suffocated the 78 men at Tak Bai village in 2004.

"The people who ordered the arrests, and who committed murder at Tak Bai," should be investigated, said a reader's letter published on Saturday (November 4) in a Thai newspaper.

Thailand's coup-installed Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, a former general, publicly apologized on Wednesday (November 1) for the 78 deaths.

The suffocations were so severe that blood burst through several victims' eyes after they were locked in army trucks in Narathiwat on October 25, 2004, according to respected pathologist Dr. Pornthip Rojanasunan.

The military killed them after shooting at more than 2,000 Muslim protesters in Narathiwat, including some who attacked Tak Bai's police station to free six jailed Muslims.

The junta's boosters congratulated Mr. Surayud for his compassionate apology, which the Thai media trumpeted as a brilliant way to help bring peace.

The rebel-linked Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), however, issued a statement from Sweden blasting the apology as "too little and too late."

PULO said, "It took more than two years for the Thai state to sincerely utter such a word, letting the Pattani people and their homeland suffer mentally, physically and inhumanely."

Malay separatists in this Southeast Asian nation appear to be operating through several localized groups, without a single leader, and loosely influenced by reports about Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Indonesia's Jemaah Islamiyah, Muslim insurgents in the southern Philippines and elsewhere.

The Malays want to dominate the three impoverished Muslim-majority southern provinces, and enforce "sharia" religious laws under an autonomous or independent administration.

They idealize a small Malay homeland existent 100 years ago, before Buddhist-majority Thailand annexed the coastal territory's rubber-rich plantations and hilly jungles which lead further south to Muslim-majority Malaysia.

Thailand is a "major non-NATO ally" of America, and cooperates with U.S. President George W. Bush's worldwide, extrajudicial "war on terror".

But the coup forced a mandatory U.S. suspension of 24 million dollars in annual military training.

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