South Thailand: 'They're getting fiercer' By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK - A month after launching a peace offensive to win the hearts and minds
of Malay Muslims in Thailand's southernmost provinces, military-appointed Prime
Minister Surayud Chulanont faces a violent backlash that raises new questions
about Bangkok's authority over the restive region.
The recent closure of nearly 1,000 schools in the southern provinces of
Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat due to fears of Muslim militant attacks marks a
new low in the Thai government's ability
to protect local communities and state institutions since the current cycle of
violence erupted in January 2004.
"This is unprecedented. The security forces needed to protect the schools are
clearly not enough," said Panitan Wattanayagorn, a national-security expert at
Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University. "The militants are attacking the schools to
make a point that the government cannot provide security."
Despite the presence of some 30,000 heavily armed troops and auxiliary forces
across the region, Muslim militants have recently escalated their campaign of
violence, forcing teachers' unions in the last week of November to close
schools in remote rural areas near the Thailand-Malaysia border.
The ramped-up attacks began soon after the new school term began on November 1,
including the killing of five teachers and burning down of a dozen
state-run schools. One incident that stood out for its brutality was the
killing of 48-year-old teacher Non Chaisuwan, who was shot and burned to death
in the presence of teachers and students at his school at Pattani province's
According to some unconfirmed local estimates, 59 teachers have been killed and
scores of schools have been torched since January 2004, when suspected
Malay-Muslim insurgents in a well-coordinated attach raided an army camp and
torched 20 schools across the region.
The regular attacks on schools and teachers over the almost three years of
escalating violence have prompted the military to arm state teachers with
weapons. In July, after a wave of attacks, which led to 100 schools closing in
Narathiwat, the military started to train 1,000 teachers to fire handguns. In
2005, more than 300 teachers had been trained to use weapons in self-defense.
On November 2, Surayud made his first visit to the south since being appointed
prime minister by a military junta that came to power after the September 19
coup that deposed twice-elected premier Thaksin Shinawatra. Surayud began
his peace overtures by apologizing for the past atrocities committed by Thai
security forces against ethnic-Malay Muslims during Thaksin's tenure.
He followed up with a pledge to permit space for the implementation of Islamic
sharia law in the region, where Muslims make up about 80% of the local
population. Another olive branch came in the form of a promise to set up
special economic zones in the south, whose three provinces are among the
poorest in the country. In the particularly restive Narathiwat province, for
example, 34% of the area's 700,000 inhabitants live below the poverty line.
Loath to compromise
Surayud's goodwill gestures have been returned with a spike in violence that
escalated as November drew to a close. Apart from targeting schools, frequent
attacks on Buddhist monks in Narathiwat province compelled the ascetics to stop
the traditional practice of collecting alms every morning. At least 200
Buddhist villagers have recently fled their homes in Yala province because
of escalating militant attacks.
The pattern of these attacks - apparently aimed at driving Buddhist residents
from the area - has recently drawn the attention of international human-rights
groups, which until now had more frequently criticized the Thai military's
heavy-handed tactics in the conflict. For instance, the New York-based Human
Rights Watch in a recent statement accused the insurgents of "terrorizing the
population and preventing children from enjoying their right to education".
At the same time, Muslim civilians have not been spared from the insurgents'
random bombs and bullets according to a recent study released by researchers at
the Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province. Of the 1,730 confirmed
conflict-related deaths recorded between January 2004 and August this year, the
majority of the victims have been Muslim civilians, teachers, village headmen
and bureaucrats, the study reveals. The death toll among Buddhists amounted to
679, according to the research.
State schools have been a consistent flash point in the decades-long clash
between Malay-Muslim militants and the Thai authorities in the region. "Burning
schools have been a feature of this insurgency since the 1960s. Attacks on
teachers arose in the 1980s," said Francesca Lawe-Davies, Southeast Asia
analyst for the International Crisis Group (ICG), in a telephone interview from
Ethnic-Malay Muslims have viewed schools as "symbols of the Thai state's
assimilation policy going back to the education act in 1921", she said.
"Schools have always been at the center of this conflict because it is one of
identity and assimilation."
Thailand's Malay Muslims - who speak a different language, the Malay dialect
Yawi, and have a different history going back centuries associated with the
Islamic kingdom of Pattani - have always stood out in contrast to Thailand's
Buddhist majority, who speak Thai and have their unique history revolving
around Buddhist kings.
Bangkok opened this divide after forcefully annexing the three southernmost
provinces in 1902 and later through assimilation policies aimed at forcing
Malay Muslims to subordinate their own identity to Thai concepts of statehood.
Thai dictator Phibun Songkram, who rose to power in the late 1930s, implemented
harsh policies that banned the use of the Malay language in government offices,
forced Muslims to take on Thai names and required Malay Muslim children to bow
before Buddha statues as an act of patriotism, according an ICG research
Even with Surayud's recent conciliatory gestures, Muslim academics in the south
have little hope of the violence abating. Some analysts believe the recent
attacks on the schools suggest that Thailand's new generation of Muslim
militants is loath to compromise and is determined to fight a separatist battle
similar to that carried out by their forebear insurgents in the 1960s and
The militants "have been preparing for a long time and they will go on. They
believe that by shutting down schools and driving villagers from some parts,
they have an area under their influence," said Worawit Baru, professor of Malay
studies at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani province. "They are getting