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Insurgents Target State Schools in Southern Thailand


In southern Thailand, insurgents target state schools and teachers, seen as tools of a dominant Thai Buddhist state that is diluting their Muslim Malay culture. In the past few years, they have attacked hundreds of schools, killing over 150 teachers, employees and students. While the frequency of attacks has recently slowed down, Thai Buddhist teachers in the south still require special protection.

Like most Thai Buddhist school teachers in the south, 32-year-old Lalita Suthep rides her motorbike to work escorted by soldiers and with armed volunteers lining the road.

Suthep teaches first grade, including the Thai language, to Malay Muslim students at the Jakhe School. And that makes her, and the school, a target for insurgents.

Suthep has lived in Pattani province her whole life. Although Thailand's southern rebels have never attacked her, two colleagues at the last school where she taught at were not so lucky.

"After school we would leave in groups," said Suthep. "But, my two male colleagues at a nearby school were working late and decided to drive back in the same car. After they left the school, a terrorist shot one of them dead. The other was shot in his arm."

After the attack, Suthep decided to transfer to the Jakhe School, thinking it would be safer.

But the principal Chavarat Negnrat, says the school also came under attack.

Standing in front of a one-story building, he points across the schoolyard to an outdoor bulletin board, exposing the pistol he has holstered under his belt.

"There was one incident, around December 2007, over there, there was a bomb," said Chavarat Negnrat. "Over there used to be a break area for soldiers who protect teachers. Their aim was the soldiers. Maybe they wanted to hurt them, but they were only slightly injured. "

Fifteen-year-old student Masba Thahe wears a violet hijab, a traditional headscarf that all the girls in her class wear.

Flanked by her classmates, she remembers the day the bomb went off.

"About nine in the morning, while the teacher was teaching, there was a bomb," said Masba Thahe. "Students were frightened, cried, then the military came to supervise and teachers soothed the students."

Southern Thailand was an independent Malay Muslim sultanate before the Buddhist kingdom seized the region a century ago and began assimilating residents at the expense of their own culture.

A sporadic insurgency in the southern provinces came back to life in 2004, and since then nearly 4,000 people have died, most of them civilians.

Analysts say the militants attack state schools and teachers because they represent and teach the dominant Thai culture.

The head of southern Thailand's Teacher's Union, Boonsom Thongsriprai, agrees.

But he says the schools have in recent years been trying to improve relations with the Muslim Malay community.

"Schools must have community activities with villagers to create a good relationship, understanding, and reconciliation," said Boonsom Thongsriprai.

State schools like the Jakhe School now teach Islam using the local Malay dialect.

And, Suthep says the younger generation of Thai Buddhist teachers like herself, who grew up in the region, are more sensitive to Muslim Malay culture and history.

She says despite the risk of being attacked by rebels, she would never leave Pattani because it is her home.

Also, she says, it is important to teach the children to understand and accept other cultures and religions.

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