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Southern Thailand Schools Reopen Following Attacks - 2004-02-25

In Thailand, hundreds of government schools in the predominantly Muslim south reopened this week after closing for the second time in two months because of threats to teachers and students. Private religious schools in the region have until the end of this month to register, or be closed. The government of mostly Buddhist Thailand believes some of the traditional schools may be fostering religious extremism.

It is midday at Kwala Sira school, a government primary school consisting of several small buildings on the outskirts of Sungai Kolok, near the Malaysian border. Workers are laying the foundation for new a classroom to replace the old wooden building, which was burnt to the ground in an arson attack on January 4.

The principal, Arun Ben Yakut, is an earnest young man from this area. He says the attack occurred shortly after midnight. He arrived quickly and tried to organize a bucket brigade, but the 42 year-old building burned down in minutes.

"I am upset because we built that building," he said. "Though it is old, we always renovated it. But the greatest loss is the school records that were inside."

Twenty government schools were torched that night, as unknown gunmen raided a nearby Army base, stealing 400 weapons and killing four soldiers.

The government subsequently declared martial law in three mostly Muslim southern provinces and deployed thousands of troops to find the culprits. The soldiers are also looking for attackers who have killed some 40 people since then, including policemen, teachers, civil servants and three Buddhist monks.

The government blames Muslim rebels, who staged similar attacks in the 1970s and '80s in a campaign to create a separate Muslim state in the south. It believes that some unregistered religious schools, called pondoks here, may be fostering a new insurgency and harboring the assailants.

Security forces have searched many pondoks - angering many locals who feel the searches have been disrespectful to their religion.

A few dozen kilometers up the road, is the Mahad Darrul Hikma pondok, which is educating 300 students from kindergarten to the ninth grade.

The dormitories are clapboard houses on stilts and are divided into separate compounds for male and female residents. A single-story pavilion serves as the community mosque.

The founder of the school, Abdulaziz Shafia'i Juma, is an elderly man with a white beard. He says soldiers and policemen searched his pondok one night in January.

"The officers searched the entire school and found nothing," he said. "But my pondok is registered and I have good relations with the authorities."

Other schools, however, have had a different experience. The three provincial Muslim councils this month temporarily suspended cooperation with the government after school inspections which, they said, were disrespectful.

The government says about one-fourth of the 400 pondoks are not registered and many do not require their teachers to have university degrees. It wants these schools regulated, to ensure that they teach not only religion, but also secular subjects like science, mathematics and the Thai language.

The head of Islamic Studies at Prince of Songkla University in neighboring Pattani Province, Ibrahem Narongraksakhet, says most pondoks, however, do teach secular subjects.

"They are teaching in the Malay language and the Arabic language," he explained. "So it is misunderstood by some that pondoks are teaching only religious subjects."

The professor notes that in the late 1960s a government order to register all pondoks sparked two decades of separatist violence during which hundreds of schools were torched and teachers were sometimes killed in front of their pupils.

Professor Ibrahem explains that pondoks provide an inexpensive way for families to educate their children according to their traditions and religion.

The government notes that many students from the south are not able to pass state exams needed to attend university and this contributes to the region's grinding poverty. It announced this month a multi-million dollar program that includes more funds for education in the south. But it is having trouble retaining teachers here. Many are asking for transfers, saying they fear for their lives.

Local leaders acknowledge that better educational opportunities will help address poverty in the region. But they say pondoks are not a breeding ground for extremists and the unrest is not over religion.

They say the violence is due to rivalries among businessmen, politicians and security forces. And they say that repression will only aggravate tensions and lead to more violence.