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    Southeast Asia
     Dec 7, 2006
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 Saiburi district.

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 Jakarta.

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 report.

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 1970s.

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 more fierce."

(Inter Press Service)

No peace in sight for southern Thailand (Oct 27, '06)

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