In recent years, the southern provinces of Thailand have seen an upsurge in violence. Over the last six years, more than 4,000 people have been killed in the southern region which borders Malaysia. This once-independent Muslim sultanate was annexed by Thailand in 1909 and is now the scene of regular attacks from separatists. Around 80% of the population in the southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are Muslim and speak a Malay dialect. A security presence of over 60,000 police and military personnel across the region has not managed to restore peace or reduce the tensions amongst the ethnic population, who feel they are treated as second-class citizens by the Buddhist mainstream.
Regular acts of violence erupt across the volatile south, but the focal points for attacks are the region’s schools. Over 100 teachers have died in the last four years and dozens of people employed in schools, from janitors to administrators, have been killed. Most recently, two teachers were gunned down in Narathiwat province and state schools across the province had to be shut down for three days. As well as the killings, there have also been over 300 arson attacks on school buildings in the last four years. Insurgents target the schools, because they are seen as symbols of the Thai state, representing oppression and indoctrination.
The attacks are taking a heavy toll on the children in southern Thailand. A recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) charts some of the harrowing incidents which have taken place here, how teachers are being threatened or killed and buildings bombed or burned. Pupils are traumatised by seeing their schools burn down or by the loss of teachers.
And in a region where schools already suffer from historical inequalities, the education is deteriorating even further. There is understandably a high turnover of teachers, as many decide to leave after harassment and out of fear for their lives. Parents too are also living in a state of fear and some have transferred their children to schools a long way from home, in order to try and protect them from the unrest.
An emergency decree introduced in 2005, provides troops and other security personnel in the area with immunity from criminal and civil prosecution. Local people say this has added to the tensions, as raids on schools by officials have become violent in themselves and brought a greater atmosphere of fear amongst the pupils, some of whom have reportedly been tied up or even taken into custody. But as long as the insurgents carry on with their attacks, a strong police and military presence will remain in southern Thailand. And the children here will continue to face traumatising events in the very place where they should be safest.