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School Attacks Create Climate of Fear in Thailand's Restive South

Teachers and pupils in Thailand's southern border province of Pattani are fearful after weekend arson attacks on local schools by Muslim insurgents.

No one was hurt in the early Sunday arson attacks at six state schools in Thailand's southern Pattani province. Volunteer security guards were bound before insurgents poured gasoline over the buildings.

Thai officials say they believe the attacks were prompted by the recent killing of a separatist leader in Pattani's Panare district, as well as raids on suspected insurgent hideouts leading to arrests and the seizure of equipment.

A teacher at the nearby Benchama Rachuthit Pattani School, who asked to be identified at Khun Noi, said the attacks have created a climate of fear.

Teacher Noi said people were scared after the attack with officials unable to prevent the destruction of the buildings. But she said the government under Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-ocha that took power in May might be in a position to do more to end the violence.

A separatist movement has claimed more than 5,000 lives since early 2004 in the majority Muslim southern border provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, and Yala.

Security personnel inspect the Kok Po district office after being attacked by a group of gunmen in Pattani province, south of Bangkok, Sept. 11, 2014.
Security personnel inspect the Kok Po district office after being attacked by a group of gunmen in Pattani province, south of Bangkok, Sept. 11, 2014.

Insurgents have used bombings, drive by shootings, beheadings and killing of state officials and have often been met by extra-judicial killings by authorities. Negotiations have failed to end the insurgency. State school teachers have been targeted by insurgents, with dozens murdered.

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sunai Pasuk said the school burnings were a symbolic challenge to Thai authorities.

"The problem is not about talking to leaders in exile, but how to win the hearts and minds of people on the ground and understand their grievances. But clearly the generals in power do not have any understanding that people want justice, people want an end to abuses, they want an end to impunity. It is not just about giving money to Southern Muslims that is clearly not enough," he said.

Peace talks efforts under the former government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra foundered in part due to diverse insurgent groups, lack of central leadership, and divisions on the government side. The military, which ousted the Yingluck government in May, has streamlined security operations and the negotiating team.

Chulalongkorn University expert on the southern provinces Panitan Wattanaygorn said he was optimistic about the talks, but local communities were seeking fresh initiatives.

"The southern people on the ground are waiting for a new initiative and not only talks alone, not only military security operations alone - they are looking for a political solution. The recognition of the identity at a higher level, decentralization at a higher level and to have maybe some kinds of amnesty are to be considered in order to create a new initiative," he said.

Human rights workers said years of violence have left strains on the local society, with many women increasingly their families' sole breadwinner and increasing drug use, including the sale of drugs by some insurgents to fund ongoing operations.