Letter from KUCHING REUPAH
Published on June 01, 2006 - Villagers' desire to get back to normal
Life began slowly returning to normal in this remote village yesterday when more than 100 local residents sat face to face with provincial administrators to discuss the future of the community's elementary school.
The school became infamous last month, following the brutal beating of two young teachers, one of whom remains in a coma.
Men and women of all ages, a few using canes, strolled into the grounds of an elementary school that has been turned into a fortified base.
Members of the Army's psychological operation and infantry, rangers and officers from the Armed Forces Supreme Command's National Security Centre now occupy all rooms on the school's ground floor.
The school has been off-limits to outsiders since the May 19 attack on the two teachers.
Before they were beaten, the two Buddhist teachers had been separated from their six Malay colleagues and held hostage by a group of villagers. The villagers were demanding the release of two suspected militants arrested earlier that day on charges relating to the killing of two marines last year in a nearby district.
Amid a tense stand-off between village leaders and the hostage-takers, a group of 10 men went into the dark room the two Buddhist teachers were being held in and beat them until they were near death.
The incident shook the country and clouded hopes for peace in the troubled region.
But a glimmer of optimism shined through yesterday as education officials opened a channel of communication with the villagers.
"This is the community's school, your school," Pairat Saengthong, director of education in district one of Narathiwat, told the villagers of Ban Kuching Reupah, which is in what authorities describe as a "red area". In other words, it has a high concentration of insurgents.
The new generation of insurgents has formed a web of small cells throughout the three predominantly Muslim southernmost provinces, and authorities believe they can mobilise villagers to clash with government officials.
The two Buddhist teachers knew they were going to a red area. They were two exceptional young women from the northernmost province of Chiang Rai who decided to take postings in a region shunned by most of the country's civil servants.
The province will now give priority to teachers who live in the village when it fills the eight vacancies left by departing teachers. Three young women from a village neighbouring Ban Kuching Reupah attended yesterday's meeting looking for jobs only to find out applications for the vacant posts had closed.
The province had received about 20 applications, they were told.
Despite yesterday's gesture of reconciliation, a meaningful, peaceful accord between villagers and officials remains distant.
There have been too many stand-offs between villagers and officials to forget what happened in Ban Kuching Reupah School and pretend it will never happen again.
Hostage incidents involving teachers in Tanyonglimo, Ban Laharn, Ai Ba Thu and Ban Joh Koh followed a pattern that should have provided an important lesson for security forces.
Learning from experience and creative thinking, however, do not appear to be important qualities in the government's plan to win over the region.
Pictures of more than 20 suspects involved in the incident were posted on the wall of the school's main hall. Most of the suspects, if not all, were from the village, which has 200 or so households.
The display of suspects was the main attraction for villagers who showed up at the school yesterday. Peace and reconciliation remain far away.
Ban Kuching Reupah, Narathiwat