Protecting Thailand’s Malalas

Bangkok Post, October 25, 2012

Published: 25/10/2012 at 01:48 AM

The recent shooting of 14-year-old Pakistani student Malala Yousafzai shocked the world and put a spotlight on the fate of children in one of the world’s most dangerous places to go to school. But Thailand’s three southern border provinces also make it onto that list of places where students and teachers each day fear turning up for school.

When I stepped inside the library at Ban Ba Ngo school in Pattani on the morning of March 24, 2010, smoke was still rising from a pile of books in the corner of the burned out room. Five days earlier, late in the evening of the last day of the school term, a group of separatist insurgents had stormed the school, doused the classrooms with gasoline, and used the books from the library and mattresses from the kindergarten to fuel the flames.

Insurgents have attacked schools in the South because they view them as a symbol of state oppression and indoctrination of the local Malay Muslim population. But such attacks cause the most harm to the area’s innocent children who lose not only a place to study and learn, but also one of the main sources of normalcy and routine in their lives.

The burning of Ban Ba Ngo school was the 327th arson attack on a government school in southern Thailand since the resumption of hostilities in January 2004. But it was also the last major arson attack on a school in the south for 25 months.

Sadly, there is little evidence that the hiatus in attacks on schools was a result of the insurgents’ increased realisation of the toll it put on the children, rather than a simple change in tactics and targets that could now be swinging back toward targeting schools. On April 18, 2012, suspected rebels set Ban Ta Ngo school in Narathiwat ablaze, followed by Ban Beu Nae Pi Nae school in Pattani on June 7.

The insurgents’ disregard for students’ safety has been evident in the recent brazen bomb attacks at schools. On Aug 9, alleged insurgents detonated a bomb inside Ban Gawa school in Narathiwat in an apparent attack on a police school protection unit; and on Sept 24, a bomb exploded at Batu Mitrapap 66 school in Narathiwat, wounding two school directors.

The latest attack shows insurgents continue to target teachers who are viewed as government representatives. Komsan Chomyong, a teacher from Ban Bor Ngor elementary school, became the 152nd teacher killed by suspected rebels, who shot him three times in the head, killing him instantly on Oct 1.

Similar depravity is evident in the fact that children have also come under attack while at school, or on their way home. A six-year-old was wounded in September 2011 when insurgents ambushed a school to kill soldiers responsible for protecting its teachers. One schoolgirl was killed and four others injured as they travelled home from school in March, in a roadside bomb attack apparently intended for soldiers. And two students from Romklao school were injured by shrapnel when their school bus was hit by an explosion in Narathiwat on Sept 27, in an apparent mis-timed attack on the military vehicle escorting the bus.

One positive sign might be found in the decision last October by the Fourth Army Region Commander Lt-Gen Udomchai Thamsarorach to remove security forces encamped in government-run schools. Previously, army and paramilitary forces were using at least 79 schools as bases and barracks, often sharing the schools with the children.

These camps were not established in schools in direct response to any specific threats on these schools or teachers, but merely as a convenient place to accommodate the rising number of troops deployed to counter the insurgency.

While school security might sometimes require the presence of soldiers near schools, research by Human Rights Watch showed that the use of schools merely for easy camping spaces in hostile areas interferes with children’s education as parents remove their children from occupied schools out of fear that the camp will put the students at risk of attack from the insurgents, or that children, particularly girls, will be harassed by the security forces.

However, it remains unclear whether the army and paramilitary have pulled out of all the occupied schools. The best authority to verify these withdrawals would be Unicef, which monitors similar withdrawals of troops from schools around the world. Yet last year the Foreign Ministry refused access for the UN’s most senior representative in the country to monitor grave violations against children in the embattled southernmost provinces.

And this is one crucial way in which the situation in southern Thailand differs from that which young Malala Yousafzai risked her life to bring attention. The world has condemned the attack against Malala and her schoolmates. Yet in Thailand, the government appears intent on senselessly hiding the atrocities committed against students, teachers, and schools from the international community.

It would be a true tragedy if more Thai Malalas were needed before their plight receives the attention that they deserve.

Bede Sheppard is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, who wrote HRW’s report “Targets of Both Sides: Violence against Students, Teachers, and Schools in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces”.