Thursday, December 13, 2012

Southern teachers: How many more have to die?

Education Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana was quick to show his concern for the frightened teachers in the South. He flew down to Pattani last Thursday to meet about 1,500 teachers who told him they expected the central government to do more to make teaching children safe.

But the story that emerged from the meeting was not about how to effectively prevent terrorists from taking the life of the next teacher to fall victim to violence. It was about bumping up the Bt2,500 “hazard pay” by another Bt1,000 for teachers in the far South.

As of yesterday, a total of 157 teachers have been gunned down in the past decade in the southern provinces by terrorists who were determined to disrupt the normalcy of life down there. Even innocent teachers have fallen victim to the series of violence aimed at discrediting the central government’s ability to keep law and order.

The latest two victims were reported on Tuesday right in the school’s compound in Mayo District of Pattani province where seven teachers were having lunch by a group of insurgents disguised as rangers. It was a blatant attack that put authorities to shame. It was as if security measures, despite a series of attacks against teachers the week before, were non-existent.

Killed were Baan Ba-ngo School’s female director 49-year-old Ms Tatiyarat Cheukaew and 38-year-old teacher Somsak Kwanma. They fell dead without knowing why their work to educate the local children was being targeted by the terrorists and why the central government had failed to prevent such an obvious security gap.

Before Tuesday’s shocking incident, 33-year-old Chatsuda Nilsuwan, a teacher from Ban Ta-ngo, Cho Airong District of Narathiwat province had been killed in a daring assault. The next day, a 52-year-old teacher, Thirapol Chusaongsaeng, at Ban Noko school was shot and injured in the same province.

Last week’s shootings prompted the Confederation of Teachers in Narathiwat province to suspend classes at 378 schools in the province pending assurances from local authorities that more effective protective measures would be meted out.

“We didn’t really want to close the schools because that would play into the hands of the insurgents whose aim is to prove that they could halt the normalcy of life here anytime they wanted,” said one of the confederation’s leaders.

The incident triggered a call for the suspension of classes at more than 300 schools in Pattani alone, apparently to pressure authorities concerned to review all security measures for local teachers. The loopholes in the system to ensure safety for teachers were plainly too many to plug.

Fourth Zone commander Lt Ge Udomchai Thammasaroraj pledged to beef up protection measures. The new education minister promised to raise the "hazard pay" by Bt1,000 to Bt3,500. Schools were reopened on Dec 3.

But just as negotiations were progressing, the insurgents weren't taking a break. They torched a local school at Amphoe Panarae in Pattani on Nov 29 and another one nearby on Dec 2 despite stepped-up security measures.

How could such blatant attacks take place despite the show of renewed effort on the part of the authorities to provide protection to local teachers?

It was hard not to suggest that the authorities -- including the military, police and civilian officers -- weren't plainly out of touch with reality. One would have thought that all these incidents taking place in the wake of the tense aftermath of the killing of teachers should have put every security unit on red alert.
Panarae District, it has been pointed out, had one of the most heavy concentrations of military presence in the area just as the spate of insurgents' activities were being launched.

The tactics employed by the terrorists were also being repeated successfully without any effective counter measures by local anti-insurgent elements. They were disguising themselves as local rangers, policemen and volunteers in carrying out the attacks. It was an old ploy that remains unchallenged by authorities suggesting that the government forces aren't in a position to devise any effective means to neutralize some very basic tactics used by the other side to disrupt local villagers' livelihood.

Other well-known tactics employed by the insurgents remain successful tools for the terrorists including shooting at government troops and policemen to seize weapons and planting bombs on roadside locations as well as using motorcycle and car bombs to kill officials. They have also resorted to torching business locations in the cities to cause panic and fear.

All these terror tactics aren't new or unpreventable. The fact that they can be employed to cause chaos at will indicates that the joint security forces have failed to map out successful counter-insurgency strategies that could blunt terrorist attacks.

Teachers and schools have become the most vulnerable link in the insurgents' chain of fear-inspiring activities. Unless the central government and local authorities seriously work out an effective and sustainable preventive set of well-coordinated measures, no amount of "hazard bonus" and whistle-stop visits by Cabinet members down South will bring us any nearer to a real solution.

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