05/23/2006, 00.00
THAILAND
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Teachers and their families targeted by rebels in south

There is no let-up in violence against Buddhist minorities in the southern provinces. On Friday, two teachers were kept hostage for three hours. More than 100 schools have been closed out of fear.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Islamic militants in southern Thailand have apparently started to target relatives of Buddhist teachers. Police in the province of Narathiwat said Somboon Ratchsuwan, 69, the father of the director of a local school, was killed while driving his motorcycle with his wife riding pillion. The woman was injured. Both were Buddhists. The police said they believed the "murder was the work of Islamic militants".

Meanwhile, yesterday, more than 100 schools in the three Muslim-majority southern provinces closed because of poor security in the zone. On 19 May, still in Narathiwat, masked men kept two teachers hostage for three hours. The kidnappers demanded the release of two Muslims arrested in connection with the killing of two soldiers at the beginning of the year. The authorities did not give in to their request and the women were beaten. One of the two, Juling Ponggunmul, is in a coma.

Tawat Sae-ham, head of a teachers' union, said there is a drive under way to "do everything possible to eliminate the Buddhist minority" from the provinces in the south. Tawat said "schools will remain closed all week because teachers don't believe they have any security".

The two years of clashes between Islamic insurgents and government forces in the south have cost the lives of over 1,300 people. Teachers are among the main targets, because they are perceived to be vehicles of transmission of Buddhist culture. The incident on 19 May was the fourth such attack since the start of 2006. The government provided an escort for teachers some time ago, and supplied them with arms, but these measures do not seem to suffice.  Yesterday, the premier, Thaksin Shinawatra called an urgent meeting with security officials to see how to protect teachers.

Ongkorn Thongprasom, a high-ranking official of the Thai army promised stronger and more decisive interventions against the rebels and warned: "If incidents of this kind (like that on 19 May) happen again, I will resign."

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