March 28, 2006

Nineteen Muslim teachers held in restive Thai south

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Nineteen teachers at an Islamic school
founded by a top fugitive insurgent in the Thai south have been
held on suspicion of involvement in two years of bloody
separatist violence, officials said on Tuesday.

The arrests would fuel more resentment among ethnic Malays
in the mainly Muslim region, where more than 1,100 people have
been killed in the violence, Muslim leaders and lawyers said.

Security officials in Bangkok said the 19 men were arrested
under a controversial emergency decree which allows detention
of suspects without charge for 30 days.

The teachers at Thamma Wittaya School in the city of Yala
were arrested last week after they came back from a curriculum
preparatory meeting on an island off nearby Satun province,
said a Bangkok-based Muslim lawyer who is working on the case.

"Police and soldiers went to search their houses and
arrested them after they came back from the island," Kitcha
Ali-ishoh, who also works for a Justice Ministry-appointed
agency to bring peace to the south, told Reuters.

"This mass arrest as a result of their meeting, which was
not a secret, will affect students when classes resume," he

Thai schools are on holiday until in mid-May.

At least six teachers from the school -- founded by
Sapaeing Bazo, the most wanted separatist leader with 10
million baht ($257,000) on his head -- have been killed since
the latest unrest began in January 2004.

Security agencies have named Sapaeing as a leader of the
BRN Coordinate, one of the groups behind the violence in the
region, and say he is believed to be hiding in Malaysia.

Several teachers and students at Thamma Wittaya, a school
of 6,000 students which teaches both Islam and general
subjects, have been arrested previously on suspicion of
involvement in the two-year insurgency, police said.

Security officials told Reuters the 19 teachers were
arrested because other suspects had implicated them during
police interrogations and some of these teachers were educated
in Muslim countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia.

"They claimed to have a meeting about the school
curriculum, but why did they have to have it on a remote
unknown island hardly ever visited by tourists," a Satun
security official said.

A leading Islamic scholar in the region said arresting
people on flimsy excuses would only raise more anger in a
region which has seen bouts of separatist violence since
annexed by predominantly Buddhist Thailand a century ago.

"I've told senior officials so many times that if they
suspect someone, they should invite them for questioning, not
just detain them with no charges," Yala provincial Islamic
council chief Abdullahmee Cheseh said.

The government has tried many ways to end the violence and
win the hearts and minds of the 1.8 million people in the
region bordering Malaysia, from brute force to bombing the
region with millions of paper "peace" birds by Air Force
warplanes. But the violence persists.

($1=38.92 baht)