Pattani, Thailand – Ban Ba Ngo could be any other rural primary school in Thailand. Under palm trees off a potholed road, students sit at desks reciting lines. Drawings celebrating the king’s recent birthday adorn walls; metal posts and a patch of sandy grassland mark out a football pitch.
But Ban Ba Ngo is unlike many schools around the world: It lies in the country’s violence-plagued southern border provinces, known here as the “Deep South”.
At lunchtime on December 11, 2012, five armed men arrived at the canteen, separated the only two Buddhist teachers – one of them the female director – from the other staff and executed them with gunshots to the head.
“Even now I feel upset. I can’t look at that canteen,” said acting headteacher Kasem Jeh Ali, who was made to lay facing the floor as his colleagues were slain.
Nurisa, a shy 11-year-old, was the only one of 75 students present at the time of the killings; it was her turn to mop the floor. She fiddled with a pen as she recounted closing her eyes during the incident. “It feels different coming to school now,” she said. “We are all frightened.”
The killings were just the latest in decades of fighting against Thai rule by elements of the predominantly Malay-Muslim population in the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and four districts of Songkhla – close to the Malaysian border.
Sinister new side
“Almost all teachers now are scared… Life for teachers must go on – we just must be more careful.”
– Pongsak Silbutre, deputy director of Yuyo school
Following a lull in the 1990s, the conflict slowly restarted in late 2001 with a sinister new side: violence against the education system, particularly against Buddhist teachers in government-run schools.
The renewed insurgency that accelerated with a January 2004 raid on an arms depot in Narathiwat also saw armed men burning 19 schools. There have been scores of further arson attacks on schools and the intimidation of education officials through anonymous messages.
Of the more than 5,300 people killed since the return of conflict, nearly 160 have been teachers or education workers, according to rights groups.
Last December’s killings led to the temporary closure of all schools in the Deep South, a strike by teachers over their vulnerability and a swift visit from the country’s Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.
The army has been escorting teachers to and from schools for several years; now six soldiers armed with M16 assault rifles sit around the corridors and courtyard of Ban Ba Ngo.
Yet increasingly fortified schools have not alleviated feelings of insecurity among staff, students and parents.
“Almost all teachers now are scared,” said 56-year-old Pongsak Silbutre, the Buddhist deputy director of Yuyo school in Pattani’s relatively secure Muang district, where several Buddhist teachers have recently relocated. He changes his route to and from work each day over safety fears.
“Life for teachers must go on – we just must be more careful,” he added.
Some parents are also concerned by the increasing role of the army in schools. Amran Awaejehlee, 37, has two daughters and a son at Yuyo. “Maybe then the militants will want to attack them. And I disagree with it: School is not the right place for guns,” he told Al Jazeera.
The attacks show no sign of stopping. On January 23, gunmen shot dead a Muslim primary school teacher in Narathiwat in front of other staff and students.
Systematic campaign of violence
|Ban Pakaharang school has suffered from an arson attack and teacher killing in 2005 [Joe Jackson/Al Jazeera]
The attacks on the schools, with the national flag fluttering at their entrances and portraits of the king on walls, seem to be a form of protest against Thai rule – and anybody who collaborates with it.
But the campaign suggests a more systematic attempt to rid government-run schools of Buddhist teachers. In addition to the killings, anonymous messages have ordered them to flee the Deep South: “Leave now if you don’t want any more damage to lives and property,” a 2005 letter to a Pattani principal said. “If you continue to stay, we will not guarantee your safety.”
There have been no formal demands or claims of responsibility for attacks.
The armed men may also be targeting schools as part of a slow war of attrition to divide communities and shatter the social fabric of the Deep South.
Despite decades of insurgency against Thai authorities, many Buddhist and Muslim communities have lived side by side in peace. The new militant movement, which differs significantly from prior incarnations, appears intent on changing that.
In contrast to past separatist campaigns – waged through formal groups such as PULO (Pattani United Liberation Organisation) – the current crop of armed men are thought to be loosely affiliated and operate in autonomous cells.
Analysts, such as independent security analyst Don Pathan, believe the fighters, known as “juwae” in Malay, were cultivated at a network of pondok schools, which focus on Islamic religious learning, in the 1990s.
Their tactics show greater hostility to anybody connected with the Thai state – including Buddhist communities living in the Deep South.
A 2010 Lowy Institute report noted some division within the separatist movement over this development. Some of the “old guard” leaders – those active in the 1960s and 1970s – said killing civilians such as teachers was wrong and undermined their cause. The fact school attacks have continued regardless suggests the “juwae” leading the new fight disagree, and are calling the shots.
“Nobody can protect us – we don’t know who the terrorists are,” said a teacher at the Bumrongis private Islamic school in Pattani who asked to remain anonymous. “There’s very little dialogue [with the armed men]. It’s not easy – nobody can talk to them.”
Meanwhile, numerous interviewees also told Al Jazeera that armed men attacked teachers because they were easy targets and received more attention than the death of a policeman or solider.
Long list of grievances
“One important strategy to the southern problem is a close relationship to, and use of, local people to look after local issues.”
– Grisada Boonrat, Songkhla governor
Whatever the reason for the attacks, the Thai education system is just one of the Malay-Muslim majority’s long-held grievances. Aside from separatist claims for everything from full independence to greater self-rule, the local population has demanded a bigger role in running policy areas such as education – and has resented the imposition of Thai-Buddhist curricula and personnel.
The continuing nature of the violence against teachers suggests that attempts to stop such attacks will have to go hand-in-hand with larger solutions to the conflict, but this will require a fundamental shift in the attitude of Thailand’s leaders, according to Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the UK’s University of Leeds.
McCargo has argued [PDF] that Bangkok is unwilling to make any compromises in fear of challenging the fundamentals of the modern Thai state: a unitary system built on centralised power and the three pillars of monarchy, nation and religion. There is little indication attitudes are changing, despite none of these pillars holding much popular appeal among Malay-Muslims in the Deep South.
Grisada Boonrat, the Bangkok-appointed provincial governor of Songkhla, appears to recognise the Thai state’s “legitimacy deficit” in the region. He has helped decrease violence in the province by involving key power-brokers in each village in decision-making.
“I try to use local leaders to make detailed regulations for their village based on Thai law and Islamic principle,” he said.
In his previous role as Yala governor, he also pioneered a scheme in which parents went into schools to cook meals for teachers and students, thereby fostering better relations across the community.
“One important strategy to the southern problem is a close relationship to, and use of, local people to look after local issues,” Boonrat added. But he said his strategies have so far received little support from Bangkok.
Meanwhile, it is the teachers who are paying with their lives in Thailand’s Deep South.
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