BANGKOK (AFP) - The death toll this year from an insurgency in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces was the lowest since the conflict began 13 years ago, monitors said on Wednesday (Dec 27), as security improves under the ruling junta.
Thailand's southernmost provinces abutting Malaysia have been in the grip of a low-level but bloody insurgency since 2004 and nearly 7,000 people have died.
The majority of the victims are civilians - both Muslim and Buddhist - caught up in near-daily bomb attacks and shootings.
Some 235 people died in 2017 as a result of clashes between the Muslim-Malay insurgents and Thai troops and police, according to figures collected by conflict analysts Deep South Watch.
That compares to 309 in 2016, continuing a downward trend since 2014 and a sharp drop on the peak of 892 deaths in 2007.
"We have seen the incidents going down for the past three years. And this year's death toll is the lowest ever if no significant incidents happen in the coming days," a Deep South Watch spokeswoman told AFP.
Thailand, which colonised the culturally distinct south roughly a century ago, has for decades been confronted by ethnic Malay fighters seeking more autonomy, but the conflict flared up into its bloodiest phase in 2004.
Rights groups have accused both the insurgents and security forces of widespread human rights abuses.
The junta which seized power in 2014 has continued peace talks but they appear to have made little headway.
Discussions to set up so-called "safety zones" have been held with an umbrella group that claims to represent the rebels, but no agreement has been made public.
Deep South Watch said the reduced death toll may be linked to continuing talks and government development schemes.
Don Pathan, a Thailand-based independent analyst, speculated the reduction was likely a combination of factors, including more government informants on the ground, a tighter security operation and more targeted strikes by insurgents.
"The bombs are bigger and more intense," he said, adding that militants were essentially being told to "make it count" and be more careful to avoid collateral damage.