Schools in South must be kept open
Insurgents must not be allowed to destroy a means of attaining social cohesion in the region
Teachers unions in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat decided yesterday to temporarily shut down 1,000 schools in the insurgency-ravaged southern provinces, citing failure by security forces to provide protection against the increasing targeting of their profession for killing and harassment by Islamic militants/Malay separatists. The schools, most of them located in remote rural communities, will remain closed pending a review of the situation and security measures provided by the armed forces.
As usual, security agencies have no ready answer on how they will improve security and give adequate assurance to teachers who risk their lives on a daily basis to teach children in the predominantly Muslim communities. In recent weeks, several teachers have been killed or injured while travelling to and from schools in areas infiltrated by insurgents bent on challenging state authority.
For the past three years, the insurgents have had huge success in terrorising and intimidating the local population in the three southernmost provinces - including anyone who disagrees with their separatist aspirations or radical worldview based on a perversion of Islam. During all this time, security agencies have struggled to find a foothold in the region, let alone develop effective strategies and tactics to combat the insurgents.
A total breakdown of law and order has already taken place in a growing number of communities in the region because residents no longer trust the security forces to protect them against ruthless militants who have no qualms about killing anyone who works for or cooperates with state authorities. It takes only a handful of committed insurgents in each village to intimidate the whole community.
Security forces have had difficulty protecting their own troops, who have frequently been ambushed and killed by the militants while escorting teachers to and from their remote schools or while on patrol. The tens of thousands of soldiers dispatched to the strife-torn region suffer low morale because they cannot expect timely reinforcement from their comrades when attacked by insurgents.
Incompetent military commanders with little experience in guerrilla warfare regularly make inane excuses for late reinforcements, including the fear that militants might strew the roads with spikes that will leave military vehicles with flat tyres. Because of the lack of clear-cut rules of engagement, military forces armed to the teeth with hi-tech weaponry, including attack helicopters, almost never give chase to the insurgents, who have unimpeded freedom of movement. The insurgents simply melt into the civilian population after their attacks.
Some 1,800 people have been killed in the deep South since violence broke out in January 2004. More than 90 per cent of the casualties are innocent civilians, government informants, state officials and security personnel.
It is not difficult to see that the insurgents are waging a war that is costing them very little in terms of casualties, while they are able to inflict a proportionately much higher number of deaths and injuries on security personnel and innocent civilians.
It comes as no surprise that security agencies find it virtually impossible to gather intelligence about the identities and whereabouts of the insurgents, who live within the civilian population. Without good intelligence, the security forces are fighting a losing war in the region, where the great majority of people are Thai Muslims of Malay descent.
Unless and until security agencies are able to prove that they can protect the civilian population against insurgents, no other measures, including noble-sounding peace initiatives by the Surayud government, will ever gain currency or acceptance with the people.
Security agencies must do whatever it takes to make sure that the schools Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat stay open and teachers can provide education to children without fear. Government schools are the one symbol of state authority that must remain strong because they are also the place where children, regardless of religion and ethnicity, are nurtured, socialised and instilled with the sense of what it means to be Thai citizens sharing a common destiny.
If not, whatever remains of the social cohesion that binds people in the region with the rest of the country will start to disintegrate.