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Report: Thai insurgents draw recruits from schools

THAILAND'S shadowy network of Muslim separatist insurgents does much of its recruiting at Islamic schools in the country's deep south, which have become "the battleground for the clash of cultures and ideologies," an independent report said today.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group said the government is unlikely to stop the recruiting or the insurgency until it comes up with a political solution to local Muslims' grievances over discrimination and mistreatment.

The report said that the separatists, who launched an insurgency in early 2004 that has since left more than 3,500 people dead, are not part of the global jihadi movement exemplified by such groups as al-Qaida.

Instead, they are a localized movement whose main appeal is to historical claims of separateness from the Buddhist-dominated Thai state, it said.

Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala once constituted an Islamic sultanate, but they were annexed by Bangkok in the early 20th century. Southern Muslims are also ethnic Malays, distinct from the Thai majority, and many have chafed for decades from a sense of discrimination and oppression.

Recruiters appeal to a sense of Malay nationalism and pride in the old sultanate, said Rungrawee Chalermsripinyorat, the ICG's Thailand analyst.

"They tell students in these schools that it is the duty of every Muslim to take back their land from the Buddhist infidels," Rungrawee said.

The report describes the classroom as "the point of first contact" for recruiters who invite devout Muslim youths to join extracurricular indoctrination programs in mosques or disguised as football training.

"Schools are particularly important as recruiting grounds because they have been the battleground for the clash of cultures and ideologies fueling the conflict," the report said. "Many Malay Muslims view state schools as a vehicle to inculcate 'Thai-ness,' while the government sees Islamic schools as a tool for Malay nationalist indoctrination."

Public school teachers are viewed by the insurgents as symbols of government authority and are regularly attacked.

Over the past five years, 115 public school teachers and education officials have been killed in the south, the US-based Human Rights Watch said last week.

Further incentive to join the rebels comes from the government's heavy-handed efforts to stamp out the separatists, as well as the failure to punish security forces for human rights abuses, according to the report.

"The arrest or killing of a relative is a strong incentive to join the movement; so are cases of torture and enforced disappearances," the report said.

The report warned that trying to control the school recruitment efforts without making political and social reforms - including increasing respect for Muslims' distinct language, religion and culture - will fail.

"Attempts to re-educate Malay Muslims or create a counter-ideology of Thai nationalism in absence of real changes to government policies will be ineffectual," it said. "The grievances that have long fueled the insurgency must be addressed with demonstrable results."


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