The dangers of teaching in Southern Thailand

By Chandler Vandergrift
Photos by Nelson Rand

Noppadol Sasimonthon woke up at 6 am, had breakfast with his 12-year-old son and then drove him on his motorbike to school. But instead of heading, as usual, to another school nearby where he taught Thai language to seventh graders, Noppadol made a quick stop at a photo shop to pick up pictures. As the morning bell drew nearer, he decided to take a shortcut - something he had never done before in his six years of teaching at the Ban Tanyong Lu School in the Southern Thai province of Pattani. It was a fatal mistake.

Unknown to him, militants on motorbikes had been stalking him for several days, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. “He was being hunted,” says Colonel Parinya Chaidilok, a Thai Army spokesman for the southern region. On this day, August 3, the hunters got lucky. Instead of continuing along the main route to the school, which was secured and patrolled by the Thai army, Noppadol veered off onto a dusty and quiet back road that snakes through the rural villages and fallow fields of a poor Muslim district on the outskirts of the provincial capital. He had about 500 metres left on his morning commute when one of the motorbikes following him raced up beside him. The passenger on the back of the speeding motorbike leaned out and shot Noppadol with a pistol three times in the head. As he lay dead on the ground, a second motorbike pulled up and another gunman shot him four more times.

“He had no enemies,” said his grieving wife two days later at his funeral. But in this region of Southern Thailand, teachers are considered representatives of the government and therefore valid targets by Islamic separatists, who are engaged in a brutal insurgency against the Thai state. Noppadol was the 144th public school teacher or staff member killed in the conflict since 2004, making the profession one of the most dangerous in the region - and the region one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a teacher.

“I was teaching my Grade 1 class when all of a sudden there was a loud bang,” recalls Nurhasinee Chedo, a Thai language teacher at Ban Tao Poon School in Yala’s Bannang Sata district - one of the most violent districts in the conflict zone. The explosion shattered her classroom windows, piercing four of her students with glass. On the road outside her school, 14 people were injured, including nine soldiers.


The wife and son of slain teacher Noppadol Sasimonthon are seen here at his funeral. Noppadol was chased on his motor bike and shot as he headed to school, making him the 144th public school teacher or staff member killed in Southern Thailand since 2004.

Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani - more than 1,000 kilometres south of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital - have been plagued by separatist violence ever since the region’s majority Malay-Muslim population was incorporated into the Thai-Buddhist state in 1902. After a simmering insurgency died down in the 1980s, violence escalated again in the early 2000s, turning this remote and lush region nestled along the Malaysian border into a battleground between Islamic insurgents bent on reclaiming their ancestral land and an equally recalcitrant Buddhist state determined to maintain its sovereignty. Since 2004 more than 4,300 people have been killed and over 8,000 injured in the conflict, which features almost-daily attacks but rarely makes international headlines. The conflict has also left nearly 4,500 children orphaned and nearly 2,300 women widowed.

Targeting schools

One of the most notorious hallmarks of the conflict is the targeting of teachers and schools, with students getting caught in the violence. The insurgents view the education system as a symbol of Thai-Buddhist oppression and since 2004 have bombed and burned schools and assassinated teachers. According to Human Rights Watch, insurgents burned at least 327 government schools between January 2004 and August 2010 - nearly 20 percent of the 1,640 registered schools in the region. During the same period, 108 teachers and 27 other education personnel were killed - a number that has since risen to at least 144 with the death of Noppadol.

Teachers are the first soft targets the insurgents focus on. They can be easily attacked and represent the Thai state.

“Being a teacher in Southern Thailand sadly means putting yourself on the front lines of conflict,” wrote Human Rights Watch in a statement following the release of a 2010 report titled Targets of Both Sides: Violence against Students, Teachers, and Schools in Thailand’s Southern Border Provinces. One positive note, however, is that arson attacks on schools have dwindled since 2007 and are now rare - primarily because schools that were torched have been replaced with cement ones and few wooden schools remain. But attacks against teachers have not let up.

“Teachers are the first soft targets the insurgents focus on,” explains Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of the insurgency monitoring group at Deep South Watch and political science professor at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani. “They can be easily attacked, and they represent the Thai state and the Thai policies of assimilation.”

One core grievance of the local Malay-Muslim population - which makes up around 85 per cent of the three southernmost provinces - is what they view as Bangkok’s decades-old harsh assimilation policies. This includes a prohibition on their language, a dialect of Malay known as Yawi, from being taught at their public schools. As language is an important marker of their identity, attempts by the government to impose Thai language have been widely viewed as a means of forced assimilation and an attack on Malay-Muslim culture. As a result, Thai-Buddhist teachers are much more frequently targeted than their Malay-Muslim counterparts, as they represent both the Thai state and the Thai-Buddhist way of life. And the killings are often brutal.

“When the insurgents kill a Thai-Buddhist teacher, they usually leave some mark meant to send a clear message,” explains Srisompob. In Noppadol’s case, it was seven bullets instead of one. Other teachers have been beheaded, burned alive, and in one notorious case that shocked the nation, a female elementary art school teacher was kidnapped and savagely beaten into a coma by a mob of villagers. She died eight months later. In another bold attack intended to spread fear among the population, insurgents disguised themselves as students, walked into a classroom and shot a Buddhist teacher in the head while he was teaching.


To protect students and teachers, military and paramilitary bases have been established at schools. But some groups worry this interferes with education and student life.

The Thai government maintains a complex security apparatus over the region, including a combined force of approximately 120,000 uniformed troops, police and paramilitaries. “Protecting teachers is our first priority,” says Colonel Parinya.

Every weekday, from 7 to 9 am and 3 to 5 pm, this massive military presence mobilizes around the schools and surrounding roadways to protect teachers and students commuting back and forth. In particularly volatile districts, teachers are escorted in military convoys and have personal communication lines with soldiers to advise them on security updates. “Being a teacher is more dangerous than being a soldier,” explains an army lieutenant in charge of protecting the Ban Talo Sumae School in the Krong Pinang district of Yala province. “When soldiers move, we move in groups; when teachers move, they move alone. They are targets, but they don’t have weapons like us.”

One of the more controversial security measures taken to protect both the teachers and students is the establishment of military and paramilitary bases right on school grounds. This move has sparked widespread criticism by rights groups.

“The government faces the challenge of protecting children and teachers,” wrote Human Rights Watch in Targets of Both Sides. “Yet, in some villages, government security forces have set up long-term military and paramilitary camps or bases in school buildings and on school grounds, interfering with education and student life and potentially attracting attacks as much as deterring them.”

Hearts and minds

The security forces argue that they are needed at schools due to the frequency of attacks. They also say that school grounds provide much-needed facilities such as water, sanitation, shelter and even space to park military vehicles. Plus, by becoming part of school life and engaging in activities with the students, such as playing sports with them, the army hopes to win over the younger generation.

“The soldiers here teach children to play sports,” explains Anon Thongburi, principal of Ban Mai Kaen School in the Ramen district of Yala, which doubles as a platoon base camp for the Thai Army. “The children play football with the soldiers, and the soldiers even give the children haircuts,” he said. He added that many of the students look up to the soldiers.


Thai language teacher Nurhasinee Chedo was teaching her Grade 1 students when a bomb went off outside her class. The blast shattered her classroom windows, piercing four of her students with glass. Outside, 14 people were injured, including nine soldiers.

Thongburi believes that the army’s presence at his school is positive. But rights groups such as Human Rights Watch disagree. “The result is that students - girls and boys - must try to get an education alongside large numbers of armed men,” the group wrote in Targets of Both Sides, adding that the presence of soldiers at schools can distract teachers from their duties and create a destructive environment for education.

We are afraid, but we have to work. If we leave, others will have to fill our spots and it will be the same for them

Another issue is whether the presence of security forces enhances or hinders the security of teachers and students. The soldiers say their presence is a deterrent to insurgent attacks as the teachers and schools are no longer soft targets. They also point out that the insurgents have yet to attack a military base located at a school.

Despite the controversy, the security forces face a formidable logistical challenge protecting the various teachers, students and over 1,000 government schools across this vast and remote region - a region teeming with mountainous jungles and rural villages that provide ideal terrain and sanctuary for the insurgents. Even with a robust security presence at numerous schools and the constant patrolling of roads and highways, insurgents attack regularly and with increasing effectiveness. “With 20,000 teachers it is very difficult; we can’t protect all of them 24 hours a day,” laments Colonel Parinya.

Questions and crossfire

Those who are critical of the military presence in schools point out that direct attacks on military bases are extremely rare, regardless of where the bases are located. Plus, they say the presence of soldiers actually attracts insurgents, increasing the likelihood of students getting caught in the crossfire of an attack on military personnel.

“We would be more safe without the soldiers,” says Murni Tohtayong, an English teacher at Ban Tao Poon School, adding that she prefers travelling to school without a military escort because she believes it is safer to travel alone. She and fellow teacher Nurhasinee Chedo explain that bomb attacks are so frequent in the district that on the day a motorcycle blast shattered school windows and injured Grade 1 students the school did not even close for the day. “I can’t count how many times I’ve heard bombs go off around here,” says Nurhasinee. “I’m used to it.”

“I’m used to it,” is what many teachers say about the violence in the region, including Sirorat Jankaew, an elementary Thai-language teacher at Ban Tilung Sung School in the southernmost district of Su-ngai Padi in Narathiwat province, which borders Malaysia. Six years ago she was wounded by shrapnel from an improvised explosive device (IED) while on her way to work. She was riding on her motorcycle as usual in a military convoy that escorts some 20 teachers to and from their schools.

“All of a sudden I heard a loud bang. I raced forward because I was scared of a second bomb. I got about 50 metres when I felt pain along my left side and realized I was hit.” She was rushed to hospital, where she spent the next 15 days being treated for shrapnel wounds to her left shoulder and leg. Another 15 days later and she was back teaching. “I was scared at first but not anymore.” Still, she admits to wanting one more item in her teaching supplies - a gun.

She is not alone in this. In Southern Thailand a large percentage of her colleagues carry weapons. “All of my friends who are teachers have guns,” says Srisompob, although he questions their effectiveness. “All teachers who have been killed [probably] had a gun, but they never had a chance to shoot back.”

A gun is hardly effective protection against the insurgent weapon of choice - the IED. Southern Thailand ranks third in the world for the number of IED attacks over the last five years - just under Afghanistan and Iraq. Often planted along rural highways and detonated remotely by radio or cell phone triggers, IEDs render guns useless.

Nevertheless, the government does have a program subsidizing 40 per cent of the cost of a gun for teachers and other civil servants. Or, if teachers wish to avoid all of the bureaucratic hassle, “they can just buy one at the market for the regular price,” the Governor of Yala province, Grisada Boonrach, remarks.

The targeting of teachers means huge numbers leaving the region out of fear, a disruption of schools as they are often closed following attacks, and the inevitable decline of the education system. Srisompob estimates that between 30 and 40 per cent of Thai-Buddhist teachers have left the region since 2004. Those that remain, for the most part, have come to terms with the violence and the risks involved in their profession, preferring to stay and continue to help their communities.

“We are afraid, but we have to work,” explained Fikree Beeding, a Malay-Muslim English-language teacher at Ban Tilung Sung School in Narathiwat. “If we leave, others will have to fill our spots, and it will be the same for them.”

Ironically, many teachers in this violence-plagued region have the same complaints that teachers have the world over in a profession that is often underfunded and under-resourced. Asked to disclose her most pressing concern about teaching in an insurgent stronghold in rural Narathiwat province, mathematics teacher Usanee Wae-Useng says that it has nothing to do with her personal security but rather involves practical requirements for her students: “We need more supplies, more computers and more books for the library.”


By becoming a part of school life and engaging in activities with students, the army hopes to win over the younger generation. “The soldiers here teach children to play sports,” explains Anon Thongburi, principal of Ban Mai Kaen School in the Ramen district of Yala.