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THAILAND: Teachers Take to Guns as Insurgency Targets Schools

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 27 2010 (IPS) - Teachers heading for work in the 380 public schools across Thailand’s southernmost province of Narathiwat take more than a bag filled with textbooks and lecture notes. Many go armed with guns.

“There are about 70 percent of all teachers in Narathiwat carrying guns,” said Sanguan Inrak, president of the Teachers’ Association of Narathiwat, which represents the nearly 7,000 primary and secondary school educators.

“I used to carry a gun, but not nowadays because of my poor health,” Sanguan revealed in an interview. “Apart from the small guns, teachers do not carry any other kind of weapons.”

This proliferation of small arms in the hands of teachers is not limited to Narathiwat. It is also a trend among teachers across the neighbouring provinces of Pattani and Yala, near the Thai-Malaysian border.

This transformation of teachers into gun-toting individuals follows the deadly trail that the ongoing insurgency in Thailand’s deep south has left on the region’s education system. Teachers, students and schools have been targeted in a conflict pitting heavily armed soldiers against a shadowy network of Malay-Muslim rebels.

Since the current cycle of violence erupted in January 2004 in an area that is home to Buddhist Thailand’s largest minority, the Malay-Muslims, 137 public school teachers have been killed, while 19 public school employees have died in the conflict, say local and international researchers.

The number of injuries sustained by teachers in the violence has been as high, with 103 public school teachers and 19 school employees being hurt, the researchers add.

The conflict, now in its seventh year, has resulted in over 4,300 deaths and 11,000 injuries. The majority of the deaths have been among the Malay-Muslim civilians.

But the grim death toll among public school teachers offers a different trend, with “a vast majority of teachers killed being Thai Buddhist,” said Bede Sheppard, senior Asia researcher for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch (HRW), the New York-based global rights lobby. “Muslim teachers have been targeted because they were working at government schools.”

The killing of Wilas Petchprom, 54, and his wife Komka, 53, in early September were among the more recent cases. The two Thai Buddhist teachers were gunned down by suspected militants while they were riding a motorcycle to a market in Narathiwat ahead of their morning classes.

But Thai troops, who along with para-military forces account for nearly 60,000 government forces in the south, have been also accused of raiding private Muslim schools and arresting scores of religious teachers, or ‘ustaz’, for having suspected links with the militants.

This climate of intimidation puts local teachers in the company of other educators around the world who find that their schools are in the frontlines of conflict, and described as “one of the deadliest places to be a teacher.”

The number of attacks on schools, students and staff nearly tripled from 2007 to 2008 – up from 242 to 670 – across the world, states the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in a report released in early 2010. “In Thailand, the number of attacks on schools quadrupled between 2006 and 2007 then fell right back in 2008.”

According to UNESCO’s ‘Education Under Attack – 2010’ report, the number of attacks on schools in this South-east Asian kingdom rose from 43 in 2006 to 164 attacks in 2007, then dropped to 10 in 2008.

Colombia, Iraq, Nepal and Thailand are the top four countries with a “high rate of teacher assassinations,” it added. “(The) number of students, teachers or guards of education personnel killed were 28 in 2007 and 78 in 2008.”

The targeting of Thai public school teachers by suspected Malay-Muslim rebels is rooted in a conflict going back to the time Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces in 1902. Until then, they had been part of the Malay-Muslim kingdom of Pattani.

Malay Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural, linguistic and economic marginalisation, giving rise to a separatist struggle in the 1970s.

Thai public schools have been viewed by the rebels as a symbol of the political and cultural domination of the Thai state, resulting in accusations that the school system seeks to dilute the Malay-Muslim identity through its curriculum. The more favoured centre of learning by militant groups has been the private Muslim schools, called ‘pondok’, where a strong Islamic and local cultural education are the mainstays.

“The insurgents, who view the educational system as a symbol of Thai Buddhist state oppression, have burned and bombed government schools, harassed and killed teachers, and spread terror among students and their parents,” HRW said in a recent report on the violence against teachers, students and schools in the insurgency-torn Thai south.

But the Thai state has compounded the problem by placing troops and para-military forces within school premises for “long periods as bases for their counterinsurgency operations,” HRW added.

The military’s response to this violent trend – close to 330 schools have been attacked since 2004 – has been met with mixed results, admits a military officer who spoke to IPS on condition on anonymity. “We would provide military escorts to the teachers at the beginning, but now we have changed that to providing protection on the roads they travel.”

Providing security for teachers in the south commands more than half the troop strength on a daily basis, the colonel admitted. “This is what most of us do during school days.”

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