PATTANI, Thailand -- From the doorway of her classroom, Thanya Srilapkhuen, a primary school teacher, can see armed guards in khaki fatigues making their way through a sunny compound. When she looks to the right, the 36-year-old's eyes settle on a security fortification protecting the entrance to her school. At the checkpoint there are more guards in combat gear, seated behind camouflaged sandbags and rolls of razor wire. They are a reassuring sight, noted Thanya. "We need them here; it is more safe," she said.
The scene evokes a war front, but it also reveals a mindset in which the presence of armed soldiers and policemen in schools has become a normal part of everyday life. Clearly, people have been shaken by the string of teacher killings here -- a bloody sideshow in a small, deadly insurgency that, in its latest form, has raged since 2004 across Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, the three provinces along Thailand's southern border with Malaysia. Both primary and secondary school teachers have been targeted by shadowy ethnic Malay Muslim rebels as part of a larger separatist struggle with the troops of predominantly Buddhist Thailand. By the end of August, teachers accounted for 175 of the more than 6,000 deaths linked to the unrest. Thanya has borne witness to this grisly spectacle, attending six funerals of friends and colleagues.
Placing armed soldiers and police at school gates is not the only security net that has been cast to protect teachers. A common sight in the early morning in this region of small towns and far-flung villages is a patrol of eight troopers accompanying a group of teachers in a vehicle heading to school. Such patrols dominate military operations here, dotted across the small roads and highways that cut through the terrain of gentle hills and rubber plantations. The 36,000 soldiers in the region are part of a force of 150,000 armed operatives, including rangers and paramilitaries. Most of the soldiers are assigned to protect nearly 16,000 teachers. "Security for teachers occupies a big share of our daily work, because they are soft targets," Colonel Banphot Phunphian, spokesman for the military's Internal Security Operations Command, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "It sometimes works out to assigning 2.5 soldiers per teacher for these security operations."
Unsettling as it is, the targeting of Thai Buddhist teachers, many unarmed (though some have received weapons training) exposes the heart of this conflict. Malay Muslims, the predominant community in Thailand's deep south, and the country's largest minority, are aggrieved at their treatment by Bangkok since the three provinces, formerly part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, were annexed by Thailand in 1902. Bangkok imposed harsh assimilation policies, forcing the ethnic Malay population to adopt Thai names and give up religious and cultural customs. They were also denied education in the Malay language in public schools. One consequence was that such schools came to be seen by Malay Muslims as symbols of oppression. They then became visible markers in the front line of this ethnic conflict, which has erupted periodically since the 1970s.
The Thai government has sought to fight the insurgency partly by cracking down on Malay Muslims thought to have links with the fighters, including Islamic religious teachers. Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a local human rights campaign organization, said that about 5,000 people had been detained in southern jails under emergency decrees since 2004, adding that some Muslim teachers had been arrested after the military claimed to find bombs, guns and weapons located in religious schools. In some cases, the arrest of Islamic scholars by the army has prompted retaliatory strikes on Thai teachers.
Runda Kumpulan Kecil, the armed wing of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional-Coordinate, the strongest and most influential of the insurgent groups operating on the ground, has often dispatched its members in such retaliatory strikes. "We choose and strike back," a stocky midranking commander of the RKK said during an interview in a remote village. Targeting teachers is also sometimes a part of the recruitment process for new volunteers, often at the end of a rigorous period of training in camps hidden under the thick forest canopy that covers much of the terrain here. "The basic training lasts two months and then selected RKK members are given weapons training and taught bomb-making," said a local source with access to the BRN-C's armed wing. "But to graduate they need to succeed in their first operation. And sometimes teachers are the targets."
In defining this conflict, Thai governments and the military have closed ranks to describe the unrest as being rooted in religion. However, critics say this attempt to avoid addressing the more sensitive and politically challenging ethnic dimension is wishful thinking. "The Thai government cannot eradicate Malay nationalism; it is very strong," said Shintaro Hara, a Japanese linguist who teaches Malay at the Prince of Songkla University, based in Pattani. "The Thai people are blind to the scars of the local history. And for Malays to keep their identity, there is a need to keep the memory of struggle fresh."
Beyond the politics of identity, the deep south's economic problems have occasionally driven eruptions of local frustrations. The majority of jobs in the bureaucracy are held by Thai Buddhists, an obvious minority in the region, leading to complaints about the marginalization of the region's nearly 2 million Malay Muslims. A decade of violence has undermined the hopes of Malay Muslims of a bigger share in the area's economic potential. The fisheries industry has sagged, despite Pattani's reputation as the largest port in the south. More than 100 fish processing factories have closed in the last five years in Pattani, where the fishing sector accounts for a third of the province's gross domestic product. This downturn has affected both the owners of the area's 700 big trawlers and the 20,000 households that own smaller boats.
Rubber, the main source of the deep south's income, has been buffeted less by bullets and bombs, but more by global price slumps. "Rubber is the core of the economy in the deep south, and when rubber prices go up or down, so does everything else," said Anusart Suwanmongkol, a leading Pattani hotelier and a former senator for the province. "Now, because the commodity price has collapsed, there is a huge impact across the south. The conflict has not left this mark."
It is this reality of teachers cowering in fear, economic troubles and a festering insurgency that Thailand's latest military regime has to shoulder. Three months after he grabbed power in a coup, army chief and junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha appears ready to address the troubled south. The strongman -- who is now prime minister -- has given orders for a military-packed delegation to resurrect a stalled peace dialogue between Bangkok and the Malay Muslim insurgents, brokered by the Malaysian government. A groundbreaking dialogue during the first half of 2013 was welcomed by Buddhists and Muslims as a hopeful turn. But it failed to make progress due to Thai military objections.
For educators in the deep south, the prospect of talks between Bangkok and the BRN-C could be, literally, lifesaving. "The talks should continue, and they have to build trust," said Prasit Meksuwan, headmaster of the Ban Yaha primary school. "But we will still request for military camps near our schools."