CHIANGRAI TIMES – It may seem an unnecessarily brutal and counter-productive way of underlining demands for cultural autonomy, but a major target of insurgents in Thailand’s three predominantly Malay-Muslim southern provinces have been school teachers.
Last week Thailand marked Teachers Day with special memorials for the 155 teachers who have been killed in the uprising that started eight years ago and which appears to be escalating.
The great majority of the 5,243 people who have been killed since the south’s demands for cultural and linguistic autonomy became an armed uprising on Jan. 4, 2004, have been ordinary civilians.
In the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Nara-thiwat where the population is 95 per cent ethnic Malay Muslims, those 4,215 victims are, ironically, the very people whose cultural sovereignty the guerrillas are out to liberate.
But the toll of 155 teachers, the vast majority of whom were also ethnic Malay Muslims, looms large behind 351 soldiers and 280 police officers.
Teachers have been targets in part because they are easily accessible public faces of what the insurgents of the Coordinate faction of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN-C), the main guerrilla group, see as collaborators in the persistent repression by government officials since Thailand incorporated the three provinces in 1902.
Killing teachers is also a vivid way of backing the political claims that the Thai government prohibition on the use and teaching of the local language – a Malay dialect called Yawi which is written, unlike Malay used anywhere else in Southeast Asia, in Arabic characters – amounts to cultural genocide.
Thailand’s central government, which has been in almost constant upheaval since a military coup in 2006, is still fumbling in its response to the southern insurgency.
That same year, 2006, a former Thai prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, headed a reconciliation commission which recommended that Yawi be recognized as an official language in the south and be a medium of education in the schools.
The idea was briskly dismissed by Prem Tinsulanonda, a former head of the army who is senior adviser to King Bhu-mibol Adulyadej and who was a key figure in the military coup later that year that ousted the prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
“This country is Thai and the language is Thai,” he is reported to have said.
“We have to be proud to be Thai and have the Thai language as the sole national language.”
That view no longer predominates.
For about four years nearly 300 students at several primary schools in the southern provinces have, with the assistance of the United States-based Summer Institute of Linguistics, been taught several subjects including maths and social studies in Yawi.
It has been found the children score much higher marks in those subjects than local children taught exclusively in Thai. The program is to be extended to 15 more public schools this year.
This initiative is part of what is shaping up to be a hunt for a political solution to Thailand’s problem in the south. But there are persistent reports that the army and other security forces are not happy about the shift and are manoeuvring to reassert control.
From the first generation of southern uprisings after the Second World War that simmered along through the 1960s and 1970s, the government’s response has been to use military force to try to bring peace.
The unrest died down in the 1980s, but in the 1990s some Thai Muslims went to join the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or simply to study in the radical Islamic religious schools established with Saudi Arabian money in Pakistan.
The result was that early last decade Thailand’s south had a core group of fundamentalists and military veterans.
The Thai military and police responded to the renewed out-break of violence the same way they had in the past and inevitably there have been many well-substantiated allegations of torture and civilian deaths at their hands.
It has only been since last year under the recently defeated government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that there have been serious moves to find a political solution.
Abhisit pushed through a bill which gives prime responsibility for finding a way ahead to an organization called the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center, now headed by a somewhat controversial former senior police officer, Thawee Sodsong.
In 2004, when a raid by BRN-C guerrillas on an army camp in Narathiwat province started the latest insurgency, Thawee was the commander of a group of five police officers allegedly responsible for the killing of a human rights lawyer representing Malay Muslims.
In the face of considerable local skepticism about his trust-worthiness, Thawee is trying to recast his image and present himself as a conciliator.
He has taken to holding town hall meetings with local leaders and last week he announced the government is putting up the equivalent of $5.5 million toward the construction of a state-owned Islamic university.
By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun – [email protected]