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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 July, 2005, 13:11 GMT 14:11 UK
Learning to live with Thai violence
By Simon Montlake
in Narathiwat, Thailand

Schoolchildren at Baan Jut Deang
Tight security has not visibly affected the children
At a dusty store on the outskirts of Narathiwat city in southern Thailand, a group of colleagues meet for their morning commute.

A year ago they would have travelled separately to the rural primary school in Baan Jut Deang, where they teach.

Now they ride their motorbikes and cars in a convoy, followed by an army pickup truck. Four soldiers armed with automatic rifles sit in the back, alert for any danger.

It is a short drive, but nobody is taking any chances after the recent upsurge of violence in Thailand's troubled south.

More than 700 people have been killed in the predominantly Muslim region during the last 18 months, in unrest that government officials blame on Islamic separatists, though criminal motives may also be at work.

Twenty-four of the dead have been teachers - apparently singled out because they are symbols of government control and the Buddhist majority. School buildings have also been targeted, and dozens have been fire-bombed since the violence escalated in January 2004.

The latest killing, which sparked national outrage, was the murder of a female school director in Narathiwat province.

Home to most of Thailand's 4% Muslim minority
Muslim rebels fought the government up to the mid-80s
Suspected militants have upped attacks since 2004, targeting Buddhists
Security forces' response criticised by rights groups

Kobkul Runsaewa, aged 47, was shot dead in June while travelling home by motorbike to prepare lunch for her elderly mother.

Pairach Sangthong, a senior education official in Narathiwat province, says teachers are being targeted because of their status and vulnerability.

"Teachers are government workers and an easy target because they stay in local communities close to the villages," he said.

The violence against teachers has prompted thousands to apply for transfers to other provinces, and education authorities are struggling to fill vacancies.

The situation has grown so bad that the Thai government last week offered to help teachers buy handguns and provide bullet-proof vests for those who requested them.

Razor wire

Their morning commute safely over, the teachers at Baan Jut Deang prepare for their daily classes at their wooden, one-storey school.

The children, who live in nearby Muslim villages, raise the Thai flag and sing the national anthem in the school's sun-baked playground.

School principal Tanakorn Saengtarung
I'm a teacher and I'm carrying a gun? It saddens me just to think about it
School principal Tanakorn Saengtarung

It looks like a tranquil rural scene - except for the razor-wire around the school perimeter, and the squad of armed soldiers patrolling the grounds.

The army moved in last December to guard the school and use its facilities for skills training and rural development.

It is part of a general "hearts and minds" campaign designed to win over Muslim communities distrustful of the central government's authority.

School principal Tanakorn Saengtarung says he has reservations about the idea of arming teachers, as well as the presence of soldiers.

"There's a conflict in my mind. I'm a teacher and I'm carrying a gun? It saddens me just to think about it," he said.

But sports teacher Garonpan, who did not want his family name used, insisted that it was a logical step to defend against insurgent attacks.

"It's necessary for teachers to defend themselves, we don't know who the enemy is, so I think it's good," he said.

It's hard to concentrate on teaching the children, everyone is too jumpy

Most of the school's 183 children were too shy to talk to a foreign visitor.

But there was little hint of trauma in their boisterous games, nor any sense of hostility towards the Buddhist teaching staff.

During breaks, some boys ran over to the army camp and played with the soldiers, who responded with smiles and jokes.

"The children in this area think that soldiers are exciting. The kids like to play with the soldiers," said Tanakorn Saengtarung.

Most of the teachers at Baan Jut Deang said they had lived in the area for many years and would not be driven out by violence.

"I'm not afraid. I've been here for 17 years. I feel that the local people will protect me," said Panidal Nantamatwangnara.

But Garonpan, who has applied for a transfer to his hometown in north-east Thailand, said the conflict was unsettling everyone at the school.

"It's hard to concentrate on teaching the children, everyone is too jumpy. Though we do need to give them knowledge, they are the next generation," he said.

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