Schools targeted in Southern Thailand violence
By Natthinee Rodraksa
YALA, August 2005 - Like many other Thai students their age, Nee, Nong and Mud were excitedly looking forward to going back to school last May after the long summer vacation.
In the days running up to the start of the new school year, they were busy trying on new school uniforms, paging through new textbooks and reading out loud the lessons they would begin learning when school began. They were anxious to meet their friends and teachers and were counting down the days until school reopened.
But their anticipation crumbled when they arrived at their school on the opening day and found that it had been reduced to a smoldering ruin by an arson attack the night before.
“We were sad and crying over the loss of our school and all our school supplies,” 11-year-old Nee, a fifth-grader, recalled recently. “It was our first day back to school but our school was gone. We no longer had a place to study.”
The arson at Ban School* in the Krong Penang district of Yala province was one in a series of attacks aimed at education facilities in Yala and Thailand’s four other restive southernmost provinces. The violence, which erupted in the Muslim majority provinces of Yala, Songkhla, Satun, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwas provinces early last year, has resulted in the death of local civil servants as well as attacks on government buildings.
School buildings have been specifically targeted, and numerous teachers have been killed or wounded in random shootings. Since early 2004, 56 schools have been hit by arson attacks, resulting in the temporary closure of schools that were destroyed or badly damaged. Around 4,400 children have lost their schools, their textbooks and school materials due to the arson attacks.
“We now have to finish all school activities nearly an hour earlier to allow children and teachers to go home,” said Somchai*, Ban School’s Acting Director. “That means the children are not receiving the opportunity for an education that they should be receiving.”
After two decades of relative peace in the southern provinces, home to approximately 65 per cent of Thailand’s estimated 3 million muslims, violence broke out in January 2004 when 17 schools were hit by arson attacks. These incidents were followed in April 2004 by coordinated attacks on military and police posts that resulted in over 100 deaths. According to police records, approximately 200 people were killed and another 600 people injured in violence-related incidents in the south in the first six months of 2005.
The exact cause of the violence is unclear. According to the National Reconciliation Commission – an independent body established in March 2005 to map out a peace plan for the region – the violence is fueled mainly by internal friction that may be linked to drug trafficking and the smuggling of contraband goods.
Apart from the loss of life and the damage to infrastructure, the on-going violence has also created a pervasive sense of insecurity among local community members, including young people.
“Last night at around 10, I heard an explosion and seven gunshots near my neighborhood,” said 12-year-old Mud. “I was terrified and afraid that someone I know might be hurt. My father is a security guard at the district office and I’m worried he might be attacked one day.”
Mud said that he “doesn’t dare” go outside of her home after 8 p.m. or walk to school alone in the morning.
“I don’t feel safe,” says Mud, his eyes filling with tears.
In areas where schools have been destroyed or badly damaged, temporary school shelters have been erected and replacement educational materials have been provided so that children can keep going to school. UNICEF has provided sports equipment for temporary schools being used by students of 30 schools that have been badly damaged or destroyed in the violence.
As a result of the continuing targeting of schools, the government has introduced a series of special measures in some areas, including placing many schools under the protection of security forces.
Although educational facilities may be more secure, teachers continue to face threats outside school. The majority of attacks against teachers occur while they are commuting to and from school. As a result of the on-going violence, over 3,500 teachers employed in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwas provinces have expressed a desire to be transferred to other provinces. Tip*, a science teacher at Ban School, is one of them.
“As much as I love the children here, I have to leave,” says Tip. “My parents are very concerned about my safety and would like me to move out of Yala. I used to think that such a horrible thing wouldn’t happen to me, to my school…but what happened shows that everyone is at risk of being attacked.”
Along with four of her colleagues, Tip will be transferred back to her hometown of Songkhla by mid August.
“I feel sorry that my teacher is leaving,” says 12-year-old Nong of Tip’s transfer out of Ban School. “I love her and keep asking her not to leave us. On the other hand, I understand why she is leaving. But when she leaves, who is going to teach us?”
*Names have been changed.