Schools aim to rise from ashes
Published on May 21, 2007
- Teachers and students in the South are caught in a crossfire as militants and the military battle for control of schools
Two days after arsonists set fire to the school, smoke was still rising from a pile of textbooks in the library.
The wooden chairs and desks assembled by parents of the children who attend Kasod Elemen-tary School in Bannang Sata district were burnt beyond repair.
But the setback didn't stop the morning bell from sounding. The first day of school saw about 75 per cent of students show up for assembly. The same applied to most of the 926 public schools in the three southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani. Considering that 38 schools have gone up in smoke since March, teachers in this restive region can only hope for better times.
The figure is shocking, surpassing the total for all of last year when 37 schools were burnt down in the three predominantly Muslim provinces.
Out of the 38 schools that came under attack in the last three months, 19 were in the province of Pattani, the heart of Thailand's Malay-speaking South, where battles are being fought between state agencies and a new generation of Malay separatists determined to make the area ungovernable.
No one knows if the trend will continue. If it does, the number of school arson attacks in the region will be well over 100 this year.
Another disturbing development is the killing of teachers. Since January 2004, 72 teachers have been killed and 69 injured.
Students often find themselves caught in the crossfire. In the past three-and-a-half years, 18 students have died and 65 have been injured, according to statistics from a Yala-based centre that documents attacks against schools, teachers and students.
After completing the mandatory sixth grade of public education, more than 70 per cent of students switch to the private Islamic secondary schools that dot the region.
Security officials on the ground blame the wave of arson on a new generation of militants looking to take back their historical homeland.
Historically, public schools have long been a contentious issue between the Malay-speaking community and the Thai state. Attacks against schools not only make the area seem ungover-nable but are also a slap in the face of authorities who have used them to push a state ideology locals claim comes at the expense of their culture, identity and religion.
While violence was previously confined to remote areas in clashes between government forces and armed insurgents, this generation of militants appears to be more interested in controlling mental space, as opposed to geographical space.
The government has responded by providing security details for teachers travelling to and from schools. There does not seem to be any middle ground as to what constitutes adequate security for teachers, however. Many believe their chances of coming under fire would be lessened if they didn't have the police and soldiers around them.
"We can't afford to be with them 24 hours a day, seven days a week," said an army captain who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Teachers and the community don't like seeing combat-ready soldiers walking around school grounds, saying it makes it difficult for them to concentrate on their work. One teacher from Yala's Ban Bado Elementary School, where a ranger unit has been camping out since March, said their presence was a big distraction for students.
Many teachers are not comfortable with the fact that some army units have set up a presence on school grounds, believing the move puts them in the militants' line of fire.
Some have even shunned police escorts to and from school. But given the random nature of the attacks against teachers, one encompassing policy will not please everybody.
Residents near Ban Parareusong School in Pattani's Nong Chik district avoided the school entirely because of the rangers' presence. No students showed up on the first day of school, said principal Danai Dejchanhorm.
The alternatives are to have the rangers move out of the school grounds or to explore the idea of sending the 200 students to school elsewhere.
While Ban Pakaruesong has never been burnt down, it appears that the school has become a competing ground for the military and the militants, said Danai.
Residents said the reason for not withdrawing the troops from the school was that the military was afraid of being perceived as giving in to the insurgents.
"You can be sure that the insurgents will burn it down if and when the rangers pull out," said one army officer overseeing the area in and around the village, which has been labelled "extremely red" as a security risk.
But life goes on for Ban Bado School, where five teachers and one principal hop back and forth between two classrooms. After the former principal and a teacher were gunned down and set on fire last December, five teachers decided to transfer to other schools.
"We have been told that we will receive three substitute teachers in the coming week," said newly appointed principal Sulhuda Wa-deng. "There is a lot of spirit in this community. People want to see their children get an education."
The state is continuing with a pilot project that was launched last year. This school year, the region will see nearly 300 public schools employing Islamic teachers to teach, for two hours each day, Arabic and Malay, as well as religious studies. The idea is part of the government's long-term strategy to win over a region that historically doesn't trust the state.
But with a ranger unit camping out in Ban Bado's tiny schoolyard, few think peace will reach this tormented region any time soon.
Ban Kasod, Yala