Thousands of Buddhist teachers and residents have fled southern Thailand in the wake of almost daily attacks - including a spate of beheadings - by suspected Muslim fighters, officials say.

 

As incentives to stay, the Education Ministry is offering 3000 free bullet-proof jackets and faster licences for 1700 teachers waiting to buy guns in the most dangerous parts of the three provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat.

 

"Guns are their best friends," Deputy Education Minister Rung Kaewdaeng said in Bangkok after visiting some of the 20,000 teachers in the region. "The teachers who survived are those who returned fire on their attackers."

 

Most of the roughly 34,500 Buddhist teachers working in the Muslim-majority provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have either stopped work or demanded to be transferred out of the troubled area, Education Minister Adisai Bodharamik said on Tuesday.

 

Ongoing violence

 

More than 880 people have been killed and another 1500 wounded in the past 18 months of continuing violence in the southernmost provinces bordering Malaysia.

 

"Guns are their best friends... The teachers who survived are those who returned fire on their attackers"

Rung Kaewdaeng,
deputy education minister

Officials have blamed much of the unrest on the return of a once-dormant Islamic separatist movement.

 

"Teachers are fearful and demoralised because at least 24 teachers have been killed during the recent months. So if teachers want to move out from the region, we cannot stop them," Adisai said.

 

Rung said teachers leaving the far south would be replaced by volunteer and temporary teachers and the ministry would seek loans for teachers to buy guns to protect themselves.

 

"Creating debt or saving your life, which one would you choose?" Rung asked when asked if encouraging teachers to take on more debt was a good idea.

 

Teacher transfers

 

Adisai added he had directed education authorities to approve transfers for more than 2700 teachers at government schools who have asked to be moved and replace them with volunteers.

 

Teachers have been targeted as symbols of Thailand's Buddhist establishment, and security forces routinely escort them to class to guard against almost daily drive-by shootings and bombings.

 

Beheadings

 

Teachers are targeted as symbols
of the Buddhist establishment

Suspected separatists have also killed and beheaded at least nine people in the past six weeks.

 

Local residents have also left the area in droves, according to Interior Ministry figures.

 

Between January and June 2005, more than 34,523 residents - mostly Buddhists - moved out of the southern provinces, household registration statistics say.

 

Of the roughly 1.3 million inhabitants of the three southernmost provinces, about 360,000 are Buddhists.