Thailand's deep south

Teachers up in arms

Top Read: In 2007, we provided a glimpse of how Thailand's long-running conflict between government forces and separatist insurgents in the deep south impacted local teachers. Trapped in the middle of this decades-old conflict, how did these civilians trying to do their civic duty cope?

WHY WE WROTE THIS: Because 16 years after the conflict escalated, civilians in Thailand's deep south are still caught in the middle

Rory Byrne
January 21, 2020
Teachers up in arms
Public school teachers learn to shoot during target practice at the Chulabhorn naval base in Narathiwat province, southern Thailand

Editor’s note: Though this archive piece is from 2007, this timeless story provides a backdrop to southern Thailand’s separatist insurgency and how civilians have been deeply affected, with its examination of the stories of the teachers of Ban Kuwa High School still holding deep relevance today. The conflict in Thailand’s majority Muslim Southern Border Provinces originated in 1948, but flared up in 2004 when ethnic Malay insurgents renewed their attacks, and has been ongoing since then. At least 7,085 people have been killed and more than 13,000 injured over the last 16 years. 

In November 2019, gunmen killed at least 15 people at a security checkpoint, an incident The New York Times called “the worst outbreak of violence in years”. More recently, on January 13, a clash left an insurgent dead and two defence volunteers wounded. Just last week, on January 15, an intelligence-sharing agreement was signed by the army chiefs of Thailand and Indonesia – but experts say the agreement is unlikely to assuage the long-running tensions.

The first thing you learn at school in the south Thailand province of Narathiwat is how to live in fear.

For the teachers of Ban Kuwa High School the school day begins at a small café on the outskirts of Narathiwat City. They arrive one by one, greeting each other with a respectful wai before sitting down at the dusty café to chat over Chinese green tea. Parked nearby are two Thai army Humvees, both mounted with .50 caliber machine guns.

When the last teacher has arrived, a convoy is quickly organised. One humvee leads the way with the second bringing up the rear. In between are six cars carrying the schools complement of 24 teachers and other staff. The teachers meet their army escort at a different café or restaurant nearly everyday with the aim of wrong-footing their would-be attackers.

Our schools are on the front line in this conflict … Teachers throughout the three southern provinces are living in constant fear

Narathiwat Teachers Association official

The strategy has worked so far for the teachers of Ban Kuwa; but nobody is taking anything for granted. “The threat is very real,” said the Thai army officer in charge of the operation. “Roadside bombs are the greatest threat to the convoys because they are difficult to defend against.”

Teachers are being targeted in the separatist Islamic insurgency convulsing southern Thailand, apparently singled out because they are symbols of government control and the Buddhist majority. Over 50 have been killed since fighting erupted in January 2004 with twice that number seriously injured. In addition, almost 80 schools have been destroyed in arson attacks.

“Our schools are on the front line in this conflict,” said an official from the Narathiwat Teachers Association. “Teachers throughout the three southern provinces are living in constant fear. They are working for the government, teaching the national curriculum. And they are easy targets because they stay in local communities close to the villages,” he said.

“Our teachers are frightened, it’s a very difficult situation,” says Hasim Srirakor (left). Photo: Rory Byrne
The remaining staff of Ban Kuwa have learned to live with fear. Photo: Rory Byrne

After a thirty-minute drive along winding back roads that takes us through three army roadblocks, the convoy finally arrives at Ban Kuwa – a picturesque rural school set amongst mango, banana and durian trees. In well-practiced fashion, the teachers waste no time filing in through the gap in the razor wire and past the sandbagged bunkers protecting the school’s front entrance. Soon after, the children arrive dressed in their bright pink uniforms and are hurriedly led to their classrooms.

In addition to the guards at the front gate, two soldiers armed with M-16s patrol the schoolyard to the obvious delight of the schoolboys. An armed security force has been in place at the school since a teacher at a neighbouring school was gunned down in front of his class of 10-year-olds: a lone gunman dressed in a school uniform walked calmly into Thai language teacher Prasarn Makchoo’s classroom, shooting the veteran teacher twice in the back as he wrote on the blackboard.

Mr. Prasarn died almost instantly, his hand still gripping a piece of chalk.

The gunman then walked calmly out past the terrified school children and escaped on the back of a waiting motorbike. Despite scores of witnesses, little information about the assailant ever emerged – local people will tell you that giving information to the police can mean a death sentence. 

Most blame the attacks on a variety of shadowy separatist groups, including the Pattani United Liberation Organisation and the Barisan Revolusi Nasional. These groups have been fighting off and on for decades to create an independent state for the two million ethnic Malay Muslims who live in Thailand’s deep south.

Yet many of those being killed or injured are themselves Muslims – many working in private Muslim schools – leading some to speculate that criminal gangs or rogue elements of the police or army are involved in some of the killings. In June 2005, the president of Ban Kuwa, 47 year-old Droning Meli, a devout Muslim, was wounded by a gunman as he relaxed in his front garden. “I cannot think why I was attacked – maybe it was a mistake,” shrugged Droning. 

We don’t know who the enemy is. We feel caught in between the army and the militants. We don’t know which way to turn … It’s really frightening. An attack can come at any time. We can never relax. Teachers are even attacked in their homes

Anonymous teacher

Later that year, Hamdan Yusof, a 35-year-old sports teacher and also a Muslim, was shot three times as he walked home after school. Nobody knows why. Other teachers in the region have been the victims of mob attacks.

The most notorious example involved 21-year-old Juling Pangamoon and another teacher at Ban Kuching Reupah School in Narathiwat’s Rangae district. Both were taken hostage and savagely beaten by villagers who demanded authorities release two suspected Islamic militants arrested in connection with the murder of two marines in the same district.

Ms. Juling sustained life-threatening injuries and slipped into a coma, and the young Buddhist teacher from northern Thailand soon became famous throughout the kingdom when extracts from her diaries and letters were published revealing her to be a deeply spiritual woman with a great love for the blighted people of the deep south. Sadly, Ms. Juling died last month amid an outpouring of national emotion. Those who hoped that her story might have promoted some kind of reconciliation have been disappointed.  

A Muslim Thai girl looks at her school after separatist militants set it on fire in Yala Province, southern Thailand. Photo: Associated Press

Almost 2000 people have now been killed and there’s no end in sight to the violence. Fresh hopes the military government – who seized power in a coup in September 2006 – might bring peace to the south were squashed. The leader of the coup, General Surayud Chulanont, himself a Muslim, quickly extended an olive branch to the southern militants, beginning with an apology for the hard-line policies of his predecessor Thaksin Shinawatra. He later opened the way for the south to apply some aspects of Islamic Shariah law. Despite seeming to push all the right buttons, the new regime’s efforts have had little response.

The conflict continues to escalate, leading some to speculate that Al Qaeda  linked elements are now orchestrating the violence.

“We don’t know who the enemy is. We feel caught in between the army and the militants. We don’t know which way to turn,” said one teacher at the school who asked to remain anonymous. “It’s really frightening. An attack can come at any time. We can never relax. Teachers are even attacked in their homes.”

Hasim Srirakor, the headmaster of Ban Kuwa, told us that the violence is affecting his teachers’ ability to do their jobs.

“Our teachers are frightened. They do their best but it’s a very difficult situation.” Five of the school’s 29 teachers have transferred themselves to other regions. All the remaining teachers come from the local area.

“We’re frightened, but we don’t have anywhere else to go. Our families, our friends, our whole lives are here in Narathiwat,” said English teacher Sharipah Loh. Many other teachers from around the region have applied for transfers and education authorities are struggling to fill vacancies in the affected provinces.

Some of the remaining teachers have taken to carrying their own weapons. Many schools in the firing-line have refused offers of full-time military protection for fear that it could lead to reprisals. “Many Muslim schools do not want government soldiers patrolling the school grounds,” said Mr. Hasim. 

To placate the militants many schools have introduced more Islamic content into the curriculum. But with the identity and motives of the attackers unknown, the climate of fear and suspicion remains.

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