Fences around schools in South won’t guarantee security

The Nation, July 24, 2014

Instead of armed protection, focus must be on creating non-militarised zones to put the onus on the militants.

The Thai military recently announced that it would be building fences around a number of public schools in the three southernmost provinces as part of the latest security measures for students and teachers.

The announcement was seemingly a response to a gunfight earlier this month between a group of separatist militants who had fired on a group of police officers on a morning security detail at a school in Narathiwat’s Rusoh district.

Fortunately, no one was injured in the attacks although the school was ordered by the principal to close for the week so that the students and teachers could try to come to terms with what had taken place in front of them.

While it is easy to blame the insurgents for their repeated acts of violence targeting the police officers, perhaps it’s time for the country’s security officials to rethink their entire approach when it comes to providing security.

Instead of building fences around the school, perhaps the military should focus on how to make the school ground a non-militarised zone. They could start off with making a unilateral public statement about this and challenge the separatist militants to respect this peacemaking initiative.

It should cross their mind that had the police not been there at the school, perhaps the militants would not have been firing at them. Moreover, there are other ways to provide protection for the schools, like setting up a security grid in areas surrounding the school.

It is easier to point fingers at the separatist militants, who could also justify their actions by saying they were targeting the police officers, not the students or teachers. But the security agencies and officials need to understand that their presence primarily put the school staff, teachers and students in the line of fire.

Furthermore, the concept of a non-militarised zone should be expanded to other public space, like hospitals, public transportation and open markets. Again, the idea here is to put the onus on the militants who are said to enjoy tremendous support among local Malay-Muslim residents.

The residents may not always agree with the violence and the brutality perpetrated by the militants, but one cannot deny the fact that they and the militants share the same historical mistrust and sentiment against the Thai state.

In fact, much of the history of relations between the Malay-speaking region and the Thai state were shaped by mistrust and confrontation.

Thai troops and security officials could do themselves a favour by educating themselves about international norms and proper conduct as outlined in various international agreements that address the humanitarian aspects of a conflict.

There are many legal and human rights and humanitarian organisations around the world that specialise in humanitarian principles, like the Geneva Convention, which also lays down the rules of engagement for state and non-state actors.

The military could reach out to the National Reconciliation Council members and go over some of the key points raised. There is no need to reinvent the wheel when it comes to southern Thailand.

Good and positive suggestions have been made by Thai academics and experts over the years and at no time has anybody suggested that building a fence around a school is a sound idea.