Besides being a tourism magnet and a country known for its hospitality, Thailand is, unbeknown to many, also home to a Muslim separatist insurgency. Now, in its seventh year, it has claimed more than 4100 lives in Thailand’s southern provinces of Pattani, Yala, and Narathiwat. The three southern provinces are predominantly Muslim and the majority is ethnic Malay. For decades Thai governments have been indifferent to the south and it has not enjoyed the same development as most of Thailand. Critics say that Thai authorities do not honor the south’s distinctive differences in religion, language, history and culture and that government authorities have even tried to suppress the differences and instead force people in the south to assimilate to Thai Buddhist values. This is the very fundamental to the Muslim insurgency with its goal of creating an independent Islamic state.
Separatist activity in the south is not a new phenomenon, but since 2004 there has been a renewed insurgency with regular attacks. Not only army personnel and bases have been attacked. Rather, the insurgents target anything and anyone they feel is connected to the Thai central government. Post offices, power plants, mailmen and local government officials are all targets and so are schoolteachers – both Thai Buddhists and ethnic Malay Muslims.
The insurgents see schools as a symbol of state oppression and schools all over the south have been bombed and burned. Teachers and staff, such as administrators or janitors, have been harassed or killed.
Human Rights Watch points out that the killings, in addition to their tragic consequences for family and relatives, instill terror in the students and local communities. Also, the education itself is at risk of suffering with frequent closing of schools and with teachers and students who are scared of a potential attack.
In the effort to protect local communities and schools, Thai security forces have established camps inside schools or school’s compounds in many places in the south.
When asked, Thai Army officers will say, that it makes sense to be in the schools to protect them, but critics point out that the mere presence of Thai forces may very likely make the schools an even bigger target and indeed, in at least one incident Thai paramilitary forces have been attacked while at a base inside a school compound.
The schools offer better protection for the forces with better and more solid structures that the tent camps Thai forces also set up around villages in the south and the schools offer better infrastructure with easy access to electricity, water and sanitation.
But as Human Rights Watch points out, the presence of armed forces in schools is another disruptive element to the children’s education. Often, when armed forces moves in, many students are being sent to different schools by parents who are either afraid that the school will now be attacked or afraid that the soldiers will harass the students. Villagers have complained about soldiers drinking, gambling and harassing, especially female, students.
For the villagers and their children as well as teachers and school personnel it is a horrific dilemma. They are caught in the middle and risk violence from both insurgents and government security forces.
(The images presented here was shot on assignment for Human Rights Watch in August 2010 and are part of the September 2010 report: “Targets of Both Sides - Violence against Students, Teachers, and Schools in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces”)