Time to heed South's needs

In the past two weeks, there has been a rise in the number of attacks on teachers and schools in the deep South. Two female teachers were brutally murdered, two schools were torched and another teacher was seriously injured by insurgents who are out to destroy what they view as symbols of a Thai Buddhist state in the Malay Muslim-dominated region.

In response, the government has promised to beef up security and improve financial remuneration for teachers in high-risk areas. Although these measures are necessary, they are sorely insufficient in addressing the safety concerns of teachers in the restive South.

Like it or not, we must admit that the military can never provide round-the-clock protection for school teachers _ not when state schools are not regarded as part of the local culture and community.

Throughout the past nine years of southern violence, state schools and government teachers have consistently been the targets of violent and murderous attacks by insurgents. There have been more than 100 cases of school arson, many of which have been repeat attacks on the same institutions. As of today, 155 teachers have been killed, more than 150 have been injured and six have been left permanently disabled.

This senseless violence is happening amidst complaints by local residents that state schools are imposing a Buddhist culture on Muslim children. Official approval for female Muslim students to wear hijabs and for Islamic classes to be taught as part of the school curriculum are only possible now after a long and bitter struggle by local people. The distrust persists, however, while teachers are still recruited from outside the region and school administrators continue to be mainly Buddhists. Meanwhile, the private Islamic schools favoured by locals get very little government support. Worse, many are viewed as breeding and recruitment grounds for the separatist movement.

True, it is wrong for the militants to exploit local dissatisfaction for their political goals. But it is also wrong policy-wise for the government to ignore the needs of the locals.

In a nutshell, the crux of the problem is local resentment against central state control. It is easy to see why. Under the current centralisation system, different ministries in Bangkok decide development policies, budget allocation and the exploitation of local natural resources for different provinces without any input from local people.

Education is carried out in the same top-down manner. To maintain its central control, the Education Ministry persistently ignores calls in the deep South to manage its own education system, to recruit its own teachers, and to design its own curriculum to be more in tune with the Muslim way of life. Subsequently, teachers on the ground are put at serious risk, and many pay with their lives.

To turn the tide, it is essential to foster some sense of school ownership among local communities. It is they, after all, who will be able to provide effective protection for the teachers and the schools _ not the military.

This can happen if local people and local authorities are allowed to manage their own education system. It can happen when the government backs down and allows administrative decentralisation in the deep South provinces.

Unless the government is willing to address the crux of southern discontentment through decentralisation, more arson attacks on schools and loss of innocent life are simply inevitable.