VIEW: Insurgency in south Thailand: How many more teachers must die?

Suthichai Yoon in Bangkok/The Nation
Asia News Network

Bangkok (The Nation/ANN) - Thai Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana was quick to show his concern for frightened teachers in the deep south. He flew down to Pattani last Thursday to meet about 1,500 teachers who told him they want the central government to do more to make teaching children safe.

But the story that emerged from the meeting was not about how to effectively prevent terrorists from taking the life of the next teacher to fall victim to violence. It was about bumping up the 2,500 baht (US$ 81) "hazard pay" by another 1,000 baht or teachers in the region.

A total of 157 teachers have been gunned down over the past decade in the southern provinces by insurgents who are determined to disrupt normal life there. Innocent teachers have fallen victim to the violence, which is aimed at discrediting the central government and its ability to keep law and order.

The latest victims were reported on Tuesday in a school compound in Mayo district of Pattani province, where seven teachers were having lunch. They were killed by a group of insurgents disguised as rangers.

It was a blatant attack that put the authorities to shame. It was as if security measures, despite a series of attacks against teachers the week before, were non-existent.

Killed were Baan Ba-ngo, the school's female director; 49-year-old Tatiyarat Cheukaew; and 38-year-old teacher Somsak Kwanma. They died without knowing why their work - educating local children - is being targeted by the insurgents, or why the central government has failed to prevent such attacks.

Before Tuesday's shocking incident, 33-year-old Chatsuda Nilsuwan, a teacher from Ban Ta-ngo, Cho Airong district of Narathiwat province, was killed in another assault. The next day, a 52-year-old teacher, Thirapol Chusaongsaeng at Ban Noko School, was shot and injured in the same province.

Last week's shootings prompted the Confederation of Teachers in Narathiwat to suspend classes at 378 schools in the province, pending assurances from local authorities that more effective protection would be provided.

"We didn't really want to close the schools, because that would play into the hands of the insurgents, whose aim is to prove that they can halt the normalcy of life here anytime they want," said one of the confederation's leaders.

The incident triggered a call for the suspension of classes at more than 300 schools in Pattani alone, apparently to pressure the authorities concerned to review all security measures for local teachers.

The loopholes in the system to ensure safety for teachers are plainly too many to plug.

Fourth Army Zone commander Lieutenant General Udomchai Thammasaroraj pledged to beef up protection measures. The new education minister promised to raise the hazard pay by 1,000 baht to 3,500 baht. Schools were reopened on December 3.

But just as negotiations were progressing, the insurgents were back on the attack. They torched a school at Amphoe Panarae in Pattani on November 29 and another one nearby on December 2, despite stepped-up security measures.

How could such blatant attacks take place despite the renewed effort of the authorities to provide protection to teachers?

It is hard not to suggest that the authorities - including the military, police and civilian officers - are plainly out of touch with reality. One would have thought that all these incidents would have put every security unit on red alert.

Panarae district, it has been pointed out, had one of the heaviest concentrations of military personnel in the area just as the spate of insurgent activity was being launched.

The tactics employed by the insurgents are being repeated successfully without any effective counter-measures by local anti-insurgent elements. They are disguising themselves as local rangers, policemen and volunteers when carrying out attacks. It is an old ploy that remains unchallenged by the authorities, suggesting that government forces are unable to devise effective means to neutralise these very basic tactics that disrupt local lives.

Other well-known tactics employed by the insurgents remain successful tools, including ambushing troops and policemen, seizing weapons, planting bombs at roadside locations, as well as using motorcycle and car bombs. They have also torched business properties in towns and cities to cause panic and fear.

None of these terror tactics are new or unstoppable. The fact that they can be employed to cause chaos at will indicates that the joint security forces have failed to map out successful counter-insurgency strategies to blunt the attacks.

Teachers and schools have become the most vulnerable targets. Unless the central government and local authorities work out an effective and sustainable set of preventive measures, no amount in "hazard bonuses" or whistle-stop visits by Cabinet members to the troubled region will bring us any nearer to a real solution.

*US$1=30.6 baht