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(New York) - Renewed attacks on teachers by separatist insurgents has seriously disrupted education in Thailand's southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 7, 2010, the Teacher Federation of Narathiwat suspended classes in all government schools across the province for three days after insurgents killed two teachers.

In the September 7 attack, an assailant on a motorcycle with an M16 assault rifle shot Wilas Kongkam, 54, of Manang Kayi School, and his wife, Komkham Petchprom, 53, of Thung Todang School, at about 6 a.m. as they were traveling on a motorcycle to a morning market in Tanyongmas district. Their killings took place amid a wave of insurgent attacks during Ramadan (August 9 to September 9). On August 26, Thongchai Butranont, 30, a teacher at Narathiwat's Ban Tue Ngo School, was shot dead in Narathiwat's Sri Sakorn district by a gunman armed with an M16 assault rifle.

"Insurgent attacks on teachers have created the most serious disruption to education in the south" said Sophie Richardson, acting Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "These grave crimes cannot be justified in any circumstances."

The government of Thailand has announced that special attention will be given to measures that make schools safe and teachers secure in their work. Human Rights Watch urged the government to take all appropriate steps to ensure the security of schools.

Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about the unlawful use of force by regular and volunteer members of the Thai security forces and the mistreatment of persons in custody. Over the past six years, there have been no successful criminal prosecutions in cases of attacks on Muslims - including assassinations of religious teachers (ustadz) and students of Islamic schools. Some of the attacks were reportedly in revenge for insurgent attacks on government officials and the ethnic Thai Buddhist population.

For example, on September 1, police dropped criminal charges against an army-trained militiaman attached to a Village Protection Force (Aor Ror Bor) unit in Narathiwat that is notorious for using extrajudicial tactics and vigilante violence against alleged insurgents. The suspect, Suthirak Kongsuwan, had been accused of leading a team of gunmen who attacked Muslim worshippers at Al Furqan Mosque in Jo Airong district in June 2009, killing 10 people and wounding 12 others.

"Insurgents might claim that abuses by the security forces justify their attacks, but the Thai government should not allow its troops to adopt the same logic," Richardson said. "Any attempt by the government to shield soldiers from criminal responsibility will further intensify a cycle of reprisal violence."

Ethnic Malay Muslim separatists - calling themselves the Patani Freedom Fighters (Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani, or Pejuang) - have been implicated in 108 deaths and 103 injuries of government teachers since January 2004, when the separatist insurgency escalated. Other education personnel - from school janitors to school administrators - have also been targeted; 27 have been killed and 19 injured during the same period from gunfire and bombings.

Human Rights Watch's research found that insurgents have killed 14 teachers in Thailand's southern border province over the past nine months.

On September 21, Human Rights Watch will release a comprehensive report documenting how teachers, students, and schools have all been caught in the violence between insurgents and government security forces in Thailand's southern border provinces.

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