(London) - Attacks on teachers and schools by separatist insurgents in Thailand’s restive southern provinces are terrorizing the population and preventing children from enjoying their right to education, Human Rights Watch said today.
On Monday, teachers in the three southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat decided to close all 944 government schools for fear of safety. The Teachers’ Federation has agreed with a regional army chief to re-open the schools on December 4, provided that there is no new attack.
Since the beginning of a new school term on November 1, separatist insurgents have killed five and injured at least two teachers and set 10 schools on fire while Thai security forces have struggled unsuccessfully to protect schools, teachers and students. On November 24, armed insurgents shot and burned Non Chaisuwan, a 48-year-old teacher, to death in front of terrified staff and students in Pattani’s Sai Buri district.
Militants from the youth wing (pemuda) and guerilla units (Runda Kumpulan Kecil, or RKK) of the separatist National Revolution Front-Coordinate (Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Koordinasi, or BRN-C) target schools because they are considered to be a symbol of government authority and Buddhist-Thai culture.
“Insurgents are terrorizing the civilian population by attacking teachers and schools, which they consider are symbols of the Thai state,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks on civilians are not just grave crimes. They also threaten children’s basic right to education.”
Attacks on educators in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have become a regular part of the past two years of separatist insurgency among the predominantly ethnic Malay-Muslim population. Many ethnic Thai teachers have been shot in their classrooms and their lodgings. Insurgents have ambushed both teachers and security patrols trying to convoy students safely to their schools. Teachers have been held hostage in exchange for the release of insurgent suspects from government custody.
This new generation of village-based militants in the National Revolution Front-Coordinate—who are often referred to as fighters or pejuang—is attempting to divide society on ethnic and religious fault lines by playing on mistrust between the Buddhist and Muslim population. The militants’ leaflets, recently distributed in Yala, claim that the southern border provinces are not the land of Buddhist Thais, but a religious “conflict zone” —similar to Palestine or Afghanistan—which must be divided between Muslims and infidels. According to the leaflets, Fatoni Darulsalam (or “Islamic Land of Patani,” in Arabic) will be liberated from what they call the Buddhist-Thai occupation only by force.
The government of Thailand’s new prime minister, General Surayud Chulanont, has promised to give special attention to measures that would make schools safe and teachers secure to continue their work in the community. But Human Rights Watch warned against the possible rise of vigilantism as the local population is encouraged by the authorities to defend itself against militants.
“Insurgents are using the growing insecurity among teachers and educators to strengthen their power and weaken the credibility of Thai authorities,” said Adams. “The Thai government must work closely with local communities to protect them and ensure that their children have access to education.”