Channel 4 - Thailand: Lessons in Terror

Untitled from eric hanson on Vimeo.

This Unreported World reveals how just several hours drive away from the tourist hotspot of Phuket, Islamic extremists are waging a murderous campaign against Buddhist teachers in a largely hidden conflict that has turned hundreds of primary schools into bloody battlegrounds.

Southern Thailand is home to one of the most violent conflicts in South East Asia, with more than three thousand people killed since 2004 out of a population of just two million.

Armed Islamic separatists are targeting state schools because they regard the education system as an attempt by Bangkok to impose Buddhist Thai culture on a region that is mainly Muslim and ethnic Malay. Human Rights Watch describes the violent campaign, which also targets doctors and monks, as ethnic cleansing.

Reporter Seyi Rhodes and Producer Andy Wells begin their journey at the home of 36-year-old teacher Deeranan Sairee in Yala, one of the most dangerous areas in the region. Many areas are under curfew and attacks by insurgents, including roadside bombings, are a daily occurrence.

Deeranan and her fellow teachers at Grong Pi Nang Primary School are escorted in convoys of heavily armed troops on the daily school run. In a graphic illustration of the risks they face, one of their colleagues has just been shot dead, on the day before the team arrives.

The insurgents have killed more than 100 teachers and forced the closure of more than 900 state schools, following a sustained campaign of bombing and shootings. Teachers now routinely carry pistols to protect themselves.

The team visits teacher Nangnoi Janaphiban, a colleague of Deeranan and the wife of the school's principle. Nangnoi and her husband Sittichai were attacked by insurgents as they drove home from school last year and he remains in a coma after being shot through the neck. Nangnoi tells Unreported World that Buddhists in the south are being driven out of the area and she's not going back.

Rhodes and Wells move into the 'Red Zone', one of the areas of regular insurgency activity, to visit Bongorsinair village. As in most of the villages in the south, the army has armed local 'village volunteers' with weapons to defend themselves from attack. Fifteen-year-old Hamdi Worka tells Rhodes how he patrols with other boys of his age and recently came under fire from an insurgent attack.

Returning to Sai Buri district the team visits Pondok Bamrung Musliman school. Its principal tells Unreported World that his school is being unfairly targeted by those who believe local Imams are fuelling radicalism and separatism in some schools.

Rhodes and Wells end their journey back in Yala, at the funeral of teacher Totsatid Samitamuksik, who was shot and killed close to the gates of Grong Pi Nang primary school. As they leave the area, it seems clear that, unless something is done, schools will continue to be the frontline of a vicious battle for hearts and minds.

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Frank Kitman