(New York) - A new surge of violent attacks on teachers and schools by separatist militants has seriously disrupted education in Thailand’s southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today.

Officials in Narathiwat province have been forced to close more than 300 government schools in all 13 districts this week after insurgents killed three teachers on June 11. Two gunmen walked into the library of Ban Sakoh school in Si Sakhon district around noon and shot two female teachers, Thippaporn Thassanopas, 42, and Yupha Sengwas, 26, in the head, abdomen and legs. They died instantly in front of some 100 children, who were playing in front of the library after lunch. Both teachers received warnings before they were killed.

Approximately an hour later, a male teacher was shot dead in a grocery store in Ra Ngae district. Sommai Laocharoensuk, 55, a teacher at Ban Jehke School, was hit six times by AK-47 fire in the head and body. An eyewitness said six gunmen walked into the shop and opened fire on Sommai, who was registering the names of children to be enrolled in his school.

Human Rights Watch said it believed those responsible were separatist militants because of a long pattern of similar attacks on government schools and teachers, along with continuing public threats.

“Insurgents are terrorizing teachers and schools, which they consider symbols of the Thai state,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “These attacks are grave crimes and cannot be justified by any cause.”

On June 13, militants burned down 11 schools in Yala province’s Raman district, apparently in retaliation for the June 12 murder of Abdulraman Sama, 60, a respected Muslim religious teacher. More than 500 Muslim women and children blocked a highway in front of a mosque in Raman district in protest of his killing, accusing government security forces of responsibility. Fears of further reprisal attacks on schools have led to the closure of 60 other schools today.

The military-backed government of General Surayud Chulanont has promised to give special attention to measures that would make schools safe and teachers secure in their work. Human Rights Watch urged the government to take appropriate steps to ensure the security of schools, but expressed concern about vigilantism inspired by authorities who encourage the local Buddhist Thai population to defend itself against insurgents. Since the military coup in September 2006, there have been reported assassinations of Muslim religious teachers (ustadz) and attacks on Muslim schools (ponoh) in revenge for insurgent attacks on government teachers and schools.

“Insurgents might claim that abuses by the security forces justify their attacks, but the Thai government must not allow its troops to adopt the same logic,” Adams said. “Any attempt to cover up the misconduct of security forces, or to protect them from criminal responsibility, will further escalate a cycle of reprisal violence.”

According to Human Rights Watch’s research, the new generation of separatist militants – calling themselves Patani Freedom Fighters (pejuang kemerdekaan Patani, or pejuang) – has been responsible for 75 deaths and 91 injuries of teachers since January 2004, when the insurgency escalated. They have also burned 194 schools in the same period.

Human Rights Watch examined leaflets distributed by pejuang militants in the southern border provinces explicitly warning ethnic Malay Muslims not to send children to government schools and not to cooperate with Thai authorities. The leaflets say that doing so is considered to be a forbidden sin (haram) and can be subject to severe punishment – including death.

“Insurgents are attempting to close down all government schools,” Adams said. “Their campaign of terror strikes a serious blow to public education in the southern border provinces, which already retain the lowest test scores in Thailand.”