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In southern Thailand, teaching is a high-risk profession

Separatist Malay Muslim groups view education as a tool of the government and teachers as fair targets. Eric Randolph reports from Pattani

Malasen Arsen, the acting principal of Nongchik primary school, shows a memorial commemorating assassinated headmistress Nantana Kowchan, who killed by militants in December. Eric Randolph / The National
Malasen Arsen, the acting principal of Nongchik primary school, shows a memorial commemorating assassinated headmistress Nantana Kowchan, who killed by militants in December. Eric Randolph / The National

PATTANI // The teachers of Ban Ba Ngo primary school in southern Thailand did not notice the assassins sneak into their canteen while they ate lunch. Before anyone could react, the killers had shot dead a beloved headmistress and fatally wounded a younger colleague.

"They didn't say a word," said the acting principal, who was too afraid to give his name. "We were just eating lunch and then they were next to us and opened fire."

Less than two weeks later, another headmistress was gunned down as she drove out of the gates of her primary school in nearby Nongchik district. Children watched as her bloodied body was pulled out of the vehicle by colleagues and rushed to hospital, where she later died.

These incidents, both in December, are far from rare in the four southernmost provinces of Thailand, where a brutal insurgency by separatist Malay Muslims has claimed more than 5,300 lives since it reignited in 2001.

Malay-speaking Muslims make up 80 per cent of the population in this region, in stark contrast to the Thai-Buddhist majority in the rest of the country. Locals often view the education system as a tool of Thai colonialism, conducted in a foreign language and with a curriculum that ignores their customs.

That makes teachers a prime target. Human Rights Watch said 157 have been assassinated in southern Thailand in less than a decade.

"Many local villagers don't feel the need to protect the school or teachers," said Angkhana Neelapajit, an activist with the Justice for Peace Foundation, a local NGO. "They don't feel the schools represent them, and often they don't trust them."

Rumours abound that some Thai teachers are spies planted by the government to hunt out insurgents in rural areas. The militants - a shadowy group known simply as "juwae", meaning "fighters" - often use this as an excuse to justify their attacks, although no proof is offered.

The killings also serve to drive away outsiders. At the Nongchik school where the second headmistress was shot, all remaining Thai teachers were quickly transferred out of the region.

"Actually, all of us who do not live in this village have asked for a transfer, including me," said the acting principal Malasen Arsen, 38. He is Muslim but, as a government worker, he is still in danger. "Muslims are targeted too. None of us feel safe."

As many as 60 per cent of civilian deaths have been Muslim, primarily people accused of collaborating with the Thai government or military, although many deaths are put down to criminal violence and personal vendettas, which have flourished in the unstable atmosphere.

The dominance of Islam is a key distinction between the southern provinces and the rest of Thailand, but analysts say the insurgency is ultimately driven by a political - rather than religious - agenda, reflecting the form that Islam has taken here. Most of the population belong to the moderate Shafi'ist school. Unlike other parts of the Islamic world, it is closely tied up with local ethnicity.

"Many religious leaders here have a very narrow focus on local identity," said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, which monitors the conflict. "Many even believe that the local Malay language using Arabic script is the only true form that Islam should take."

That has carried over into the insurgency. Despite appropriating some of the rhetoric of Islamist extremism, the militants' goal is political independence, reinstating the sultanate that existed before its annexation by Thailand (then Siam) under a deal with the British in 1909. That has prevented the insurgency from taking on an international dimension. Al Qaeda and Indonesia-based Jamaa Islamiya reportedly attempted to establish connections in southern Thailand, but were rebuffed.

"Foreign groups tried to exploit the situation here, but they couldn't relate to each other," said Don Pathan, a local journalist who has interviewed many local militants. "These guys are defending their homeland - they are not particularly interested in global issues."

That has been fortunate for the millions of western tourists that flock annually to the paradisiacal beaches just a few hours' drive north. But it also means there is little international pressure on the Thai government to deal with the violence.

The government in Bangkok is gradually learning from past mistakes, when a heavy-handed military approach fuelled further resentment.

Two incidents in 2004 remain etched in the local memory. The first was the killing of 32 poorly armed militants in the Krue Sae mosque in Pattani. Later that year, 76 people suffocated to death after being arrested in the town of Tak Bai and stacked in rows in the back of army trucks.

Since then, successive governments have poured money into the region, compensated victims of violence and opened back-channel talks with exiled militant leaders in neighbouring Malaysia. The prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, even promised steps towards decentralisation during her election campaign in 2011, but she has struggled to win back the trust of locals or convince conservative forces.

"To solve this conflict, there must be some kind of autonomy - allowing them to have their own system of education and locally elected leaders," said Mr Jitpiromsri. "But many leaders in Bangkok - particularly in the military - are very strong Thai nationalists. They believe autonomy is tantamount to separatism."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae