Wiry and bespectacled, Piyaporn Maneerat peered nervously ahead as he drove a country road to the elementary school where he is principal. He patted a 9mm handgun under his loose jacket, stroked a shotgun to his left near the gearshift and checked a two-edged knife to his right. His rear seat was pocked by a bullet he fired recently to stave off armed attackers who blocked him on the road.

Traveling with him was a nervous young woman he had just hired to replace one of five teachers who are leaving his school in this town in southern Thailand. Officials report that more than 3,700 teachers are fleeing the violence of radical Muslim militants and a government crackdown in Thailand's three southernmost provinces.

"Everyone feels scared," said Piyaporn, 53, a Buddhist born in the south, pulling out two amulets on strands of wooden prayer beads around his neck. "Just getting to school and home safely each day is a big achievement."

Piyaporn is among thousands of people terrorized by a growing radical Muslim insurgency and the government's hard-line response in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces on Thailand's narrow southern tip, near the Malaysian border.

More than 800 people have been killed in the past 19 months: Buddhists and Muslims, including police officers, teachers, monks and farmworkers, according to government reports. At least 14 people, most of them Buddhist, have been beheaded -- nine in June.

While the ideology of the attackers is ill-defined, they are identified as angry young Muslim men who charge that the central government of this predominantly Buddhist country represses their minority in the south.

"Their goal is to destabilize the authority of the central government," said Maj. Gen. Thani Thawidsri, the southern region's deputy police commander.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has assumed emergency powers under a draconian decree announced in July to deal with the violence. The measures give Thaksin the authority to impose wiretaps, monitor e-mail, censor the news media, grant immunity to security officials and hold suspects for up to 30 days without charge. Analysts and critics said the measures could end up aggravating the violence. While Thaksin has pledged "extreme caution" in applying the decree, a U.N. panel has denounced it as a violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

When Piyaporn arrived at school on a recent morning, another new teacher was waiting for him, this one from a local Islamic school. But Piyaporn still had vacancies. With fewer teachers, class sizes have doubled. "The hardship," he said, "has more than doubled." Social studies teachers are teaching math, for example, and the school day is shorter so children and teachers can get home earlier.

At least 24 teachers, all Buddhist, have been ambushed and killed. Teachers, who are often Buddhists and employed at government schools, recognize that they are symbols of the central government. They are considered inviting targets, analysts, officials and teachers said, because killing them disrupts life and scares the community.

More than one-fifth of local teachers have requested transfers to escape the unrest, school officials said. Teachers who remain travel to and from school under armed escort. At least 3,000 teachers have applied for permits to carry handguns, and at least that many are already carrying weapons, officials said. At some schools, police with assault rifles stand guard.

Piyaporn hustled up to the second floor of his school, Ban Patae Elementary, where a group of fifth-graders sat twittering and chatting, their teacher having quit the school. The boys and girls wore blue-and-white uniforms, and the girls wore white Muslim head scarves. They hushed when the principal walked in.

But their voices rose again when he began talking about increased security measures, and they recounted a cascade of incidents: a villager shot in the head a little over a mile from here, an attack on a soldier's outpost, a rubber tapper's head hacked off two weeks earlier.

"The neighbors saw them sharpening the knife," one child said. Children called out at once: "It's scary." "We're angry."

"We are afraid of being beheaded," said Athit Kaenthong, 11, bare feet dangling beneath a scuffed desk.

Nureena Malee, a girl with darting brown eyes whose parents are rubber tappers, said: "My parents used to go out at 2 in the morning to work. Now they go out at 5. They are afraid of bad people attacking them."

Unrest has been endemic for decades in this region, once part of an independent Islamic sultanate. But the tension has never before reached such levels of violence, said Ahmad Somboon Bualuang, a member of the National Reconciliation Commission, created by the government in March in response to the regional violence.

At least 30,000 security personnel are in the three provinces, military officials said. Soldiers and armed defense "volunteers" with tan uniforms patrol the streets, and occasionally, armored personnel carriers zip along the highway. Taxi drivers refuse to drive after dark, fearing ambushes by militants, who lay steel spikes on the roads.

"It's a mini-war zone," Somboon said.

Early on the morning of July 21, a phalanx of more than 100 security service members surrounded two Islamic religious schools in Pattani. It was the first security raid under the new emergency decree. Police entered Ishamel Idris's 10-student school with guns, but no search warrants.

Ishmael is 86, with a longish face, feeble but alert. He allowed the police to enter, he recalled in a recent interview. But the way they burst into the five rooms of his modest house, rifling through papers and books, was "scary," he said, sitting cross-legged in a plaid sarong on his wood floor.

Nothing like this had ever happened before at his school, he said, more bewildered than indignant. After all, he said, he is a respected figure in the community. He retrieved from a bookcase a plaque awarded by a local cultural council, proclaiming him an exemplary citizen.

When the raid was over, the police led away five men. "Suspected militants," was what they said, according to Idris's son, Muhamad Dumeedae, 28, a banker.

Dumeedae said he was willing to see if the police could produce evidence against the men. "But if they are innocent," he said, "the experience could radicalize them."

One of those arrested was a sullen young man named Abdul Mubin.

His father, Suleiman bin Wan Ali, came to visit him one afternoon at a police station and said Mubin was innocent.

"My son didn't do anything," said Suleiman, 56, a religious teacher who wore a white turban and flowing robe. "He's simply studying Islam and the kingdom is suspicious," he said, referring to the government authorities.

As he spoke, his wife, in a long black tunic and veil, put an index finger to her lips: "Shh!" Nodding at a plainclothes officer nearby, Suleiman switched to Arabic.

"You have to understand our resentment," Suleiman said. He referred to an incident last year in which police killed more than 100 Muslims, mostly young men, in a response to a series of attacks on police posts, and to 78 Muslim protesters who suffocated to death as they were being transported to a detention center in October. "The government has treated us brutally. They even arrested an innocent man -- my son."

Thani, the police official, said most of the attacks are being carried out by militants recruited by local religious teachers. "These young people believe they have to carry out these attacks as their mission to serve their God," he said.

Police said the insurgents were inspired by images of violence from Muslim conflicts elsewhere. A video disk circulating among militants was played for a reporter by police in Narathiwat, and included graphic footage of hostage beheadings in Iraq and a suicide bomber's funeral in Chechnya.

None of the top militant leaders has been arrested, Thani said.

Last month, assailants shot and killed three Muslim men during evening prayers. Two were sons of religious leaders. It is "possible," said Paul Quaglia, a Bangkok-based security consultant, "that authorities are resorting to extra-judicial tactics against militants."

Police officials denied that those killings or any others were ordered by authorities.

Special correspondents Noor Huda Ismail and Somporn Panyastianpong contributed to this report.

Piyaporn Maneerat, the principal of Ban Patae Elementary School, who drives to work armed with guns and a knife, speaks with fifth-graders who voiced fears over growing violence in southern Thailand, the result of a radical Muslim insurgency and a government crackdown. A police officer guards a school in southern Thailand, where insurgents have killed at least 24 teachers, all of them Buddhist and most employed at government schools.