(New York) - Separatist insurgents should immediately cease their attacks on teachers in Thailand's conflict-ridden southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today. Five teachers have been killed by insurgents in the south since the beginning of the new school term in May 2009.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Thai authorities to hold accountable those responsible in a lawful manner and take measures to bolster security at schools.

"In a sickening trend, separatist insurgents are increasingly attacking teachers, who they consider a symbol of government authority and Buddhist Thai culture," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "There is no excuse for such brutality."

On June 16, insurgents shot dead Lekha Issara, a teacher at Ban Poh Maeng school, while she was riding on a motorcycle from home to work in Raman district of Yala province.

On June 6, insurgents killed Matohe Yama, a teacher at Ban Palukasamo in Bajoh district of Narathiwat province.

On June 2, insurgents attacked a pickup truck transporting six teachers from their schools in Ja Nae district of Narathiwat province. Two Buddhist Thai teachers were singled out and killed: Atcharaporn Thepsorn, a teacher at Ban Dusung Ngor school who was eight months pregnant, and Warunee Navaka, a teacher at Ban Ri Nge school.

On May 19, Natthapol Janae, a teacher at Nikhom Pattana Park Tai school, was shot dead as he was riding a motorcycle from his home to his school in Bannang Sta district of Yala province.

After each attack, schools in affected areas were closed down for security reasons. Hundreds of teachers have requested transfers from the region. The attacks on teachers not only violate international law prohibitions against targeting civilians, but also threaten children's basic right to education.

The most recent killings were only the latest attacks on teachers - and education - in southern Thailand. A new generation of militants called the Patani Liberation Fighters (Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani) is believed responsible for killing 115 teachers and wounding more than 100 others since January 2004, when the insurgency escalated. Militants have also burned more than 200 schools in the same period.

The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva 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 safety of schools and teachers, but also expressed concern about vigilantism allegedly carried out by local security units in revenge for insurgent attacks on Buddhist Thai officials and civilians.

Over the past five years, there have been many reported assassinations of Muslim religious teachers (ustadz) and attacks on mosques and Muslim schools (ponoh). There have been no successful criminal investigations of these cases, leading many in the ethnic Malay Muslim population to conclude that the Thai government has been involved in a cover-up and has made it clear to the perpetrators that they can act without fear of punishment.

Tensions flared up on June 8 after six masked gunmen opened fire with assault rifles and shotguns on a crowd of worshipers as they were performing the evening prayer at Al-Furquan mosque in Joh Ai Rong district of Narathiwat province. Ten people died at the scene, including the imam. At least another 12 people were seriously wounded. On June 15, separatist insurgents stabbed to death Kimsiang Sae-tang, a Thai rubber tapper of Chinese descent, then cut off his head, arms, and legs before setting his body on fire. A leaflet, found near Kimsiang's head, claimed the killing was in retaliation for the previous week's massacre of ethnic Malay Muslims at Al-Furquan mosque in Joh Ai Rong district of Narathiwat province.

"Separatist insurgents claim that abuses by the security forces justify their attacks, but the Thai government should 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. It is time for the Thai government to deal with the root causes of the conflict."