24 Feb 2013

Thai teachers risking their lives to do their job

Life as a teacher in southern Thailand is becoming increasingly perilous. Asia Correspondent John Sparks has spent time with some of the brave women risking their lives.

Somchit Wongketjai has every reason to worry about the “school-run”.  She’s not concerned about the traffic – there isn’t much in Southern Thailand. She’s not worried about the distance either – it only takes 20 minutes to travel from her home to the front gates of Beu Chao School. She is afraid of getting killed however. Ms Wonketjai is a teacher, and in a part of the country better known as the “deep-south”, being a teacher makes you a target.

The region is in the grip of a nasty ethnic conflict that has taken the lives of more than 5000 since 2004. The insurgents, who are ethnic Malay Muslims, are fighting for a separate state in a country where the majority are Buddhist, and in the last few months this vicious scrap has intensified. Where militants once concentrated their attacks on members of the police and military, they are now targeting civilians like farmers, market traders and teachers. The regional education department told us that 159 teachers and educational workers have been killed and 343 schools torched.

So here’s how Ms Wongketjai got to school. A colleague driving an unmarked car stopped to pick her up on the side of the road. They waited for a few minutes until a reinforced silver pick-up pulled up behind them. They looked at each, nodded, then pulled out onto the road and began the drive to school. Following them closely in the pick-up were a detachment of Thai marines, armed to the teeth with M-16’s and hand guns.

We made it to the front gate unscathed and I got a chance to ask the softly spoken Ms Wongkejai about her nerve-wracking daily commute. “Travelling to school is difficult,” she said. “We never know what’s going to happen to us. One thing goes through my mind though. I have to go to school. I must do my job, no matter how afraid I am.”

Gunned down

I asked her whether she had thought about moving to a safer area. She said it considered it a few weeks ago when a colleague was gunned down in the canteen of a nearby school — 292 students were eating their lunch at the time. Yet Ms Wongketjai does not want quit on Beu Chao School. She said: “My friends say I should move but I would feel bad about leaving the students. They need me and I want to make sure they succeed. The other teachers here have decided to stay so I will too. Now we are in the hands of fate.”

I never felt comfortable during our visit to the school. As the children sang the national anthem at the morning assembly, several soldiers raced across the compound with their rifles at the ready. They had seen a teenager acting suspiciously outside the front gate and were worried he was acting as a ‘spotter’ and informer for the insurgents.

The teaching staff — six Muslims and four Buddhists — carried on regardless, marshaling the kids into their respective classrooms. I went to speak to Seu-ma Maman, who was teaching a group of ten-year-olds. I noticed that her hands were clasped around a mobile phone and she coaxed them through a set of maths problems. I asked her how she felt when she looked over to the open door of her classroom. She said: “Well I feel scared. If I see a stranger this sudden fear creeps over me, but I am getting use to it. Violence happens everyday around here.”

Hiding from gunfire

Ms Mamam told me about one occasion when the school community tried to hide in the prayer room after gunfire broke out nearby. Buddhists teachers are considered particularly vulnerable to attack so she tried to disguise one of her colleagues with a Muslim veil. This is how she described the incident: “In a split second, the prayer room was packed with teachers and students. There was a Buddhist teacher next to me and I was worried she would get shot so I gave her a white hijab to wear over her head so she could pretend she was Muslim. Then the children gathered around us and held on to us tightly so the insurgents could not hurt the teachers.” Later, Ms Maman learnt the shots were fired in celebration after a number of local boys had been circumcised.

Students at Beu Chao school told us they could not comprehend why anyone would want to kill their teachers. One seven year old boy said: “I don’t understand what they’ve done wrong.” No doubt many in the south feel the same way – but the insurgents benefit from significant local support. They are in fact, members of the local community, operating in small and highly secretive cells.

Heart and minds

The Thai military are well aware of this and we watched naval officers try to win young people over at a party thrown for twelve area high schools. It was classic hearts and minds stuff, with the regimental band belting out pop hits and the chief commander doling out presents to participants and their parents. The motivation was clear — prevent today’s students from becoming tomorrow’s militants. But it is a difficult trick to pull off — a student teacher took us aside at the party and told us her high-school had been raided recently by Thai ‘Navy Seals’. The troops searched the girls’ dormitories and took away four boys for questioning. They were later released but she said the experience had shocked and angered the school community.

Somchit Wongketjai is just trying to do her duty. She says she is not interested in politics or the strategic considerations of either side. She just wants to teach in peace. It’s not easy though. She said: “I got to school today and I will be careful, and when I go back home I’ll feel like I have survived another day. Then I’ll prepare for tomorrow and wonder what will happen. Can you imagine how that feels?”

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