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(Bangkok) - Separatist attacks on teachers and schools and the government's use of schools as military bases are greatly harming the education of children in Thailand's southern border provinces, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 111-page report, "'Targets of Both Sides': Violence Against Students, Teachers, and Schools in Thailand's Southern Border Provinces," details how ethnic Malay Muslim insurgents, who view the government educational system as a symbol of Thai state oppression, have threatened and killed teachers, burned and bombed government schools, and spread terror among students and their parents.

The insurgents have also used Islamic schools to indoctrinate and recruit students into their movement. At the same time, Thai army and paramilitary forces are disrupting education and placing students at unnecessary risk of insurgent attack by occupying schools for long periods as bases for their counterinsurgency operations.

"The insurgents' practice of shooting teachers and burning schools shows incredible depravity," said Bede Sheppard, senior Asia researcher for children's rights at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. "It's cruel and immoral and robs children of their education and their future."

The report is based on Human Rights Watch visits to 19 schools in Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat provinces, and interviews with more than 90 people, including children, parents, teachers, security forces, members of the insurgency, and local officials.

The vast majority of teachers and other education personnel killed by the insurgents have been ethnic Thai Buddhists. Insurgents are suspected in the killing of at least 108 government teachers and 27 other education personnel in the southern border provinces since January 2004. Another 103 teachers and 19 education personnel have been wounded. So far in 2010 alone, 14 government teachers have been killed.

Ethnic Malay Muslims have also been attacked. Insurgents have targeted Malay Muslim teachers at government schools and Islamic school administrators who resist insurgents' efforts to use classrooms for indoctrination and recruiting.

Insurgents have also bombed and set fire to schools, usually during evening hours. There have been at least 327 arson attacks on government schools in southern Thailand since January 2004.

As part of its counterinsurgency operations, the Thai government has increased the number of military and paramilitary forces deployed in the south. To accommodate these troops in potentially hostile areas, the government has frequently established camps inside school buildings and school compounds. Such occupations, which often are not in response to a direct threat on a specific school, may last for several years.

"While school security might require the presence of government forces near schools, there are many disturbing instances of troops using schools for extended counterinsurgency activities," Sheppard said. "The government shouldn't interfere with children's education just because it wants somewhere convenient to set up military camps."

These long-term occupations cause immense disruption to students and should be prohibited when it would interfere with children's right to an education, Human Rights Watch said. Many parents remove their children from occupied schools out of fear that the camp will put the students at risk of attack from the insurgents, or that children, particularly girls, will be harassed by the security forces. Students who drop out of an occupied school have to bear the risk and expense of traveling to alternative schools farther away from their homes, and their presence can cause overcrowding in receiving schools.

Security forces have also conducted numerous raids and searches for suspected insurgents and weapons at Islamic schools. On some occasions, they have made mass arbitrary arrests of students, or the raids have turned violent, endangering students and teachers.

"Being a teacher in southern Thailand sadly means putting yourself on the front lines of conflict," Sheppard said. "Separatist leaders need to end attacks on teachers and schools, while the government should stop using schools as long-term military bases and conducting mass arrests at Islamic schools. These practices harm children and create further grievances for the insurgents to exploit."

Human rights in Thailand's southern border provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat have eroded steadily as a result of an increasingly brutal separatist insurgency, which has claimed more than 4,100 lives since it resumed in January 2004. The militants have committed widespread abuses, including targeted killings and numerous bombings against civilians. In response, the Thai government has imposed special security legislation and increased the number of regular and paramilitary troops to around 30,000 in the region. Thai security forces have carried out extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and torture of people alleged to be involved with separatist groups.

Testimony from children and parents:
"[My] students were affected the moment they learned that I was shot... [They] all broke out in tears, asking, ‘Who shot the teacher?' Many came to visit me in the hospital and cried when they saw I was shot."
- A teacher who taught at a government school until he was shot by insurgents in 2009

"I had nothing against the soldiers when they were outside the school... But when they moved into the school, I feared there would be an attack on the school, so ... I withdrew my children... [I]f there was a hit on the grounds the children would be hit... There was no separation between the school and the soldiers' quarters... [Also] the soldiers brew and drink kratom [an illegal herbal narcotic], and I was afraid my children might be encouraged to drink it."
- The mother of a boy, 7, and a girl, 11, whose school compound had been partially occupied by government paramilitary forces

"I am afraid of [the soldiers], because the soldiers are very touchy. They love to hold the children, and that's okay for the boys, but for girls we can't allow men to touch our body. And I am not happy when the soldiers ask whether I have any older sisters and ask for their phone numbers."
- A 10-year-old girl who attends an occupied school

"I felt sad for the loss of the books and computers, because I like reading books.... [After the fire] we had to study outside. I didn't like studying outside [because] it's hot and noisy. I couldn't concentrate."
- A 7-year-old student whose school was burned in 2010

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