The fight against southern terrorism starts in Islamic schools
Islamic extremists who have been causing mayhem in the southern provinces can rely on local Islamic schools as a huge reservoir for propaganda and recruitment. Many young people are recruited in Indonesian universities where they train to become teachers for when they come home. An army officer and a scholar express their views on the matter.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Southern Thailand’s separatist movement relies heavily on the many Islamic schools (pondoks) in the region and their religious teachers (ustas) to spread the separatist message and recruit among a younger, more radicalised generation. For experts the Thai government can only stop this if it acts at the school level to counter the separatists’ appeal and undermine their militant base so ass to favour the south’s integration into the country.

For centuries the provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala were an independent sultanate before they were conquered by Thailand in 1786. however, the area came under Bangkok’s direct rule only in 1902, and was subject to a military-led assimilation campaign in the late 1940s that sparked a separatist struggle that has sputtered on and off for the past six decades.

Since 2004 southern separatism morphed into something quite new, with actions of daily violence and bomb attacks against the Buddhist population that killed some 2,500 people.

For experts this campaign of violence is the work of the BRN-Coordinate, the armed wing of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) or National Revolutionary Front.

BRN-Coordinate is blamed for the January 4, 2004, raid on an army weapons depot in Narathiwat that netted 300 weapons and marks the beginning of the current crisis, but for Thai military intelligence indoctrination and recruitment are done in schools and universities.

In fact, the “BRN-Coordinate has been recruiting followers from the Thai Students Association of Indonesia,” Colonel Shinawat Maendej, commander of the Army Infantry Unit 1 in Narathiwat, told the Bangkok Post

Thai graduates are indoctrinated in Indonesian universities in places like Bandung, Jakarta and Yogyakarta with the help of al-Qaeda-linked extremist groups like Jemaah Islamiah and the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

When these graduates return to Thailand many of them find jobs at pondoks, where they recruit and radicalise youths, said Shinawat.

Nearly 80 per cent of the current students in the deep south attend Islamic religious schools, which are subsidized by the state on a per capita basis.

For Panitan Wattanayagorn, a political science professor at Chulalongkorn University who spoke to the Bangkok Post, school teachers in the south have agitated and acted as ringleaders to many arrested rebels.

In addition to the military, police and Buddhist monks, rebels have targeted Buddhist teachers. This has forced the government to sell them weapons at subsidised prices as well as offer them gun-use courses for free.

Still sometimes false and unsubstantiated accusations by the military against Muslim teachers and schools have set off resentment and violence among Muslims.

Against accusations of radicalism Muslim teachers say they go to Indonesia “to study religion, not bomb-making.” What is more, one teacher lamented that “some military officers make accusations against us just to impress their bosses. This ruins many careers and means innocent teachers have to flee abroad.”

For years Bangkok also paid little attention to the issue, or did worse, like trying to force Muslim students to attend Thai public schools.

Now it is trying to improve the quality of education, including establishing working arrangements with its southern neighbour, predominantly-Muslim Malaysia, but it is “a very sensitive issue for local people,” said Panitan. “It's a major battle because Muslim community leaders see the pondoks as their sphere of influence.”