PATTANI - Amid high hopes of peace after decades of war, Muslim students in southern Thailand are debating ideas for the future of their homeland, despite worries of being blacklisted for their thoughts.
"There is no guarantee we will not be blacklisted after this meeting," a Thai Muslim student told Reuters on condition of anonymity.
"Someone could be a spy and report us, but our need to talk has overcome our fear."
A group of Muslim students have gathered this month at a university in the southern province of Pattani to debate ideas for their future.
The meeting came months after the government signed a deal with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) group in February to hold talks to establish peace in southern Thailand.
Thai officials were set to sit down Wednesday for a third round of talks with the BRN to try to resolve Southeast Asia's deadliest internal conflict.
Few details have emerged from two preliminary rounds of peace talks, brokered by neighboring Malaysia, between the government and the BRN.
But the deal has raised high hopes among Muslims to express ideas for their future, a practice seen as a taboo or treasonous in the past.
They have opened discussion in meetings and on social media, fuelling debate about the political aspirations of their region.
The Thai constitution sets out that the country's territory is indivisible and talk of separatism is tantamount to treason.
"Locals expected the violence to decrease when talks began. That didn't happen, so now they are trying to better understand this peace process," Pongsak Yingcharoen, mayor of Yala town, said.
The BRN, which in Malay means "National Revolutionary Front", is one of several shadowy groups fighting for the secession of the south.
Thailand has a Muslim population of about 9.5 million, many of whom live in rural areas.
Thai Muslims, who make up five percent of the predominantly Buddhist kingdom's population, have long complained of discrimination under the heavy-handed practices by the military.
They have also called for Malay to become an official language and to replace the Buddhist-centric school curriculum with one less hostile to Muslim sensitivities.
More than 5,000 people have been killed in south Thailand since violence erupted almost eight years ago.
Analysts see a shift in the mindset of Thai officials toward a deal to end the unrest in the Muslim-predominantly south.
"For a long time, the Thai state's interest was to consolidate control of the border states," Thomas Parks, regional director for conflict and governance at the Asia Foundation, a US-based development organization, told Reuters.
"The word 'autonomy' was a bad word, but now there's open discussion about it."
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are the only Muslim-majority provinces in Thailand and were an independent Muslim sultanate until annexed officially a century ago.
For years, the state has worked to instill a strong sense of Thai nationalism in the region's Malay-speaking population and symbols of "Thainess" pervade.
The national anthem blares out of public speakers in the morning and at night.
Many Muslims say harsh government assimilation policies have led to the suppression of their religion, language and culture.
Army checkpoints dot the roads through a picturesque region rich in rubber yet bypassed by Thailand's economic boom.
The Muslim provinces in south Thailand are among the country's least developed areas with some of the lowest education levels.
"The mindset of many of the policy-makers is different, they have become more accepting of the demands of the local population," Srisompob Jitpiromsri of the Deep South Watch think-tank, told Reuters.
"There is optimism."
Thailand's powerful military, which has 60,000 troops in the region, has been lukewarm about talks that could confer legitimacy on a rebel group seen as more criminal than political.
"People have to watch themselves when talking about separatism, but we won't detain them," said Pramote Prom-in, an army spokesman.
"We understand some young people are hot-headed."
Despite the high hopes, some Muslims say they only want equal rights, not an Islamic homeland, with the Buddhists."Most people here aren't after a separate state, they just want to have the same rights as Buddhists," said Romuelah Saeyeh whose husband, a freelance journalist, was sentenced to 12 years in prison in May for being a BRN member.