May 22, 2006

Schools in Muslim Thai south closed after attack

By Nopporn Wong-Anan

BANGKOK (Reuters) - More than 100 government schools in
Thailand's rebellious Muslim far south were closed on Monday
after villagers abducted and beat two women Buddhist teachers,
leaving one in a coma, officials said. The attack prompted
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to call another urgent
meeting with top security officials on how to protect teachers,
a prime target in a two-year separatist insurgency in which
more than 1,300 people have been killed.

The latest victim was a Buddhist employee of a state
telephone firm in Pattani, one of three largely Muslim
provinces near the border with Malaysia. Two men on a
motorcycle shot the man dead and then set his body ablaze,
police said.

"They are doing everything they can to drive minority
Buddhists out," said Tawat Sae-ham, head of a teachers' union
in neighbouring Narathiwat province, where an angry mob took
two Buddhist teachers from a school on Friday.

The teachers were dragged from the school and held hostage
by masked men.

The attackers were demanding the release of two Muslim men
detained by police and troops in the village a few hours
earlier on suspicion of killing two Marines early this year.

The teachers were beaten after officials refused to release
the two suspects. One of the teachers, newly graduated Juling
Ponggunmul, is in a coma.

"Only a miracle can bring her back to consciousness," Sumet
Pirawut, head of the hospital treating her, told a Bangkok
radio station.


Teachers and witnesses said it took police and troops three
hours to reach the village to help the teachers, but security
personnel said they got there as fast as they could on roads on
which spikes had been scattered.

"Schools will be closed for a week since teachers are
scared and they have no confidence their security will be
protected," Tawat said.

Teachers might have to come up with their own security plan
because those introduced by the government -- including heavily
guarded convoys to and from work -- had not been successful, he

Friday's incident was the fourth time this year teachers
had been held hostage -- although none has been killed.

It prompted Narathiwat governor Pracha Taerat to ask for a
transfer and Lieutenant-General Ongkorn Thongprasom, the fourth
Southern army commander in two years, to offer to quit.

Thaksin declined to talk to reporters after the security

The government of overwhelmingly Buddhist Thailand has
tried many ways to end the violence and win the hearts and
minds of the 1.8 million people in the far south, an
independent Muslim Sultanate until annexed by Bangkok a century

It has tried everything from brute force to promises of
development aid, but militant attacks on security forces,
officials and ordinary people continue almost daily in the
region, where most people speak a Malay dialect.

(Additional reporting by Trirat Puttajanyawong)