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Teachercide in Thailand

Why Thailand’s Muslim separatists target educators for murder

Thai soldiers show newly recruited rangers how to use AK-47s in the southern province of Yala, 684 miles from Bangkok, Feb. 1, 2007. Thousands have been killed in the insurgency in the Thai rebellious Muslim south, including teachers. Soldiers are attempting to quell the violence. (Surapan Boonthanom/Reuters)

BANGKOK — In Thailand’s tropical deep south, public school teachers are known to carry more than pencils and lesson books in their knapsacks. Many also tote handguns — and with good reason.

Along with soldiers and cops, teachers are A-list targets for insurgents fighting for an independent Islamic state. Largely unknown in the West, the guerrilla war to establish a Sharia-law sultanate has recently added dozens of casualties — bringing the conflict's deaths to 3,400-plus in this decade alone.

Among this month’s dead: two schoolteachers, one of them eight months pregnant, ambushed with AK-47 fire on their afternoon ride home. Insurgents spared four Muslim teachers in the same pick-up truck and allowed them to drive off with their bleeding co-workers.

One expert on the insurgency, Zachary Abuza, estimates that teachers account for 4 percent to 5 percent of the separatist campaign’s killings. To the militants, public school teachers are “agents of assimilation,” said Abuza, a professor at Boston’s Simmons College and author of the book "Conspiracy of Violence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand"

“They teach in the Thai language — the national curriculum — and try to socialize Muslims into being good Thai citizens,” Abuza said. “The (public) schools are often the only manifestation of the Thai state in rural communities.”

The insurgents are known as hard-line Malay dialect-speaking Muslims whose ancestors inhabited an ancient coastal sultanate called Pattani. Though Siamese forces annexed their land more than 100 years ago, bitterness has been passed down through generations, and the war still roils within driving distance of Thailand’s touristed coastline.

Since the killing campaign heated up earlier this decade, Thailand’s south has been heavily patrolled by soldiers and run under emergency decrees that allow martial law-style raids and detentions. While the insurgents have reached a stalemate with Thai troops, their killing of public school teachers has proven quite successful.

The majority of deep south students now attend private Islamic schools, leaving Buddhist-centric public schools with “skeleton staffing and short working days,” said Duncan McCargo, professor of Southeast Asian politics at the University of Leeds. Hundreds of less-fortunate schools have been reduced to smoldering embers by arsonists.