BANGKOK — In Thailand’s tropical deep south, public school teachers are known to carry more than pencils and lesson books in their knapsacks. Many also tote handguns — and with good reason.
Along with soldiers and cops, teachers are A-list targets for insurgents fighting for an independent Islamic state. Largely unknown in the West, the guerrilla war to establish a Sharia-law sultanate has recently added dozens of casualties — bringing the conflict's deaths to 3,400-plus in this decade alone.
Among this month’s dead: two schoolteachers, one of them eight months pregnant, ambushed with AK-47 fire on their afternoon ride home. Insurgents spared four Muslim teachers in the same pick-up truck and allowed them to drive off with their bleeding co-workers.
One expert on the insurgency, Zachary Abuza, estimates that teachers account for 4 percent to 5 percent of the separatist campaign’s killings. To the militants, public school teachers are “agents of assimilation,” said Abuza, a professor at Boston’s Simmons College and author of the book "Conspiracy of Violence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand"
“They teach in the Thai language — the national curriculum — and try to socialize Muslims into being good Thai citizens,” Abuza said. “The (public) schools are often the only manifestation of the Thai state in rural communities.”
The insurgents are known as hard-line Malay dialect-speaking Muslims whose ancestors inhabited an ancient coastal sultanate called Pattani. Though Siamese forces annexed their land more than 100 years ago, bitterness has been passed down through generations, and the war still roils within driving distance of Thailand’s touristed coastline.
Since the killing campaign heated up earlier this decade, Thailand’s south has been heavily patrolled by soldiers and run under emergency decrees that allow martial law-style raids and detentions. While the insurgents have reached a stalemate with Thai troops, their killing of public school teachers has proven quite successful.
The majority of deep south students now attend private Islamic schools, leaving Buddhist-centric public schools with “skeleton staffing and short working days,” said Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. Hundreds of less-fortunate schools have been reduced to smoldering embers by arsonists.
“Government schools are largely empty, operating at between 10 and 60 percent capacity,” McCargo said. “The staff has been largely localized. Muslims have replaced many of the Buddhists who used to teach in these schools. But even the local Muslim teachers feel very unsafe.” Muslims seen as collaborators are also heavily targeted.
The growth of Islamic schools may be paying off bonus dividends for insurgents, according to an International Crisis Group report released this week. Separatist teachers, the report said, are secretively recruiting young male secondary school students and indoctrinating them under the guise of football training.
Other watchdog groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have also condemned the systematic targeting of educators. “There is no excuse for such brutality,” said the group’s Asia director, Brad Adams, who described the trend as “sickening.” In past years, teachers have been beheaded or doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Public school teachers are more than just symbolic targets, Abuza said. Compared to other agents of Thai authority — police and troops — they’re relatively easy to kill. They often commute along rustic back roads lined by endless rubber tree farms in “regular patterns and fixed routines.”
Thailand’s Defense Ministry has even announced plans to arm teachers with 9mm handguns and rifles, with 4,700 firearms set for distribution to educators and community watch-style defense volunteers.
“Teachers are very anxious, especially in the rural areas,” said McCargo, who conducted hundreds of interviews in the region for his book "Tearing Apart the Land: Islam and Legitimacy in Southern Thailand."
“Many teachers have guns — anyone who wants one can easily get one — and have been trained to shoot, often by military instructors,” McCargo said.
This month’s rash of killings — against teachers, civilians and even Muslims knelt in prayer at a crowded mosque — has signaled that the south’s military occupation is not taming the violence.
Thailand’s current premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva, has conceded that the solution will likely rely on economic solutions, not troops. He has even controversially suggested that setting up a Quran-derived Sharia law in the southernmost provinces could ease the crisis.
Meanwhile, separatists who struggle for a long-lost Muslim state have plenty of incentive to prey on public school teachers.
It’s a “win-win,” Abuza said. “Schools have shut down for months at a time, which further convinces Buddhists to leave the region. And Muslims are compelled to enroll their children in privately run madrassas.”
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