Few countries are as divided over politics as Thailand. On the streets of Bangkok, the confrontation between Red and Yellow shirts always seems close to the breaking-point, with the struggle so thoroughly dominating the national psyche that other, potentially greater, issues are sidelined.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra is well aware of this and in fact made a timely visit to the country’s much troubled south amid an escalation of violence aimed squarely at local school teachers.
She promised to do her best and called on local civil society groups to help. But ordinary Thais living in the south — Muslims and Buddhists alike — are wary and fearful with teachers shutting down schools in Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and some parts of Songkhla after the latest spate of killings.
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, three school teachers have been assassinated in the past six weeks while another three have been injured and at least one school razed.
It described one attack in chilling detail: “In the December 11 attack, five men, some armed with M-16 assault rifles and dressed in camouflage, entered Ban Ba Ngo School in Mayo district, Pattani. Three walked into the school canteen where teachers were having lunch and separated five Muslim teachers from two Buddhist teachers.
“When the school’s Buddhist director, Tiyarat Chuaykaew, tried to hide behind a Muslim teacher, one of the insurgents shot her in the head, execution-style. Somsak Kwanma, the other Buddhist teacher, was similarly shot and killed. The insurgents then escaped.”
Government statistics are telling. Since the Islamic insurgency in Thailand began in January 2004, 5,000 people have been killed, including 157 school personnel. Over the same period almost 6,200 teachers have requested a transfer out of the three southern provinces, but only about 1,840 were approved. As a result few wish to teach there.
Thailand, an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, has had trouble identifying and profiling the shadowy outfits behind the attacks who have made vague demands for greater autonomy in their homelands, which were annexed by Thailand more than a century ago.
The Patani Freedom Fighters, or Pejuang Kemerdekaan Patani, have been linked to the attacks on teachers while the National Revolutionary Front-Coordinate (BRN-C), which traces its roots back to a similar group that was established in 1960, continues to be the most high profile group among southern separatist movements.
Insurgents have claimed the killing of teachers was in response to the assassination of religious leaders by government security forces, although Buddhist teachers armed with a government curriculum have never really been welcomed by hardline Islamists.
The situation is not that unlike the Southern Philippines, where the national government has struck a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) over its demands for a Muslim homeland.
However, with that deal in place (assuming it continues) and the dismantling of the regional terrorist outfit, Jemaah Islamiyah, Thailand’s south remains an anomaly, a deadly issue that authorities have failed to grapple with amid regional efforts to weed out Islamic militancy over the first decade of the 21st century.