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ARKIB : 28/04/2004

Thailand allows teachers in restive south to carry guns for protection

BANGKOK (Thailand) April 27 - Thailand has given permission to teachers in the violence-wracked Muslim south to carry guns to school to protect themselves, but the defense minister said Tuesday it was a bad idea.

Gen. Chetta Thanajaro told reporters he is willing to deploy four soldiers in every school in southern Thailand and arrange for teachers to be escorted by troops to and from their homes.

``I think there is no need for teachers to carry guns because they have to spend a lot of money to buy guns,'' Chetta said, indicating a discord within the government on how to deal with the continuing violence in the south.

On Monday, Interior Minister Bhokin Bhalakula ordered provincial governors to give teachers licenses to buy guns if they want to even though it would mean bringing firearms into the classrooms when the region's 925 schools reopen May 17 after two months of summer holiday.

More than 70 people have been killed in the three southern provinces of Narathiwat, Yala and Pattani this year in attacks blamed on Islamic separatists.

Teachers, who are mostly Thai-speaking Buddhists, have been prime targets of the militants along with monks, policemen and village headmen. Also, dozens of schools, which are usually located away from villages, have been set on fire.

Pairat Wihakarat, the president of a teachers' union in the three provinces, said more than 1,700 teachers have already asked for transfers to safer areas. Those who are willing to stay want to carry guns to protect themselves, he said.

The three provinces are the only Muslim majority areas in predominantly Buddhist Thailand. Muslims there have long complained of discrimination in jobs and education.

They also say their culture and language are being subjugated by the Buddhist Thais, and cite as an example the state schools, which teach in Thai language. Muslims in the south speak Yawi, a dialect of Malay, spoken in the neighbouring Malaysia.

The alienation caused by the central government's policies has been the source of a decades old separatist struggle, which had subsided after an amnesty in the late 1980s before exploding this year into a frenzy of violence.

On Tuesday, Somkid Prommin, 44, a government informer, was shot and killed by two men on a motorcycle in Pattani province, said police Maj. Somchit Sawanchathree.

Somkid was shot in his ear, arm, and twice in his body, and died as he was being taken to the hospital, Somchit said.

Earlier Tuesday, a small time bomb exploded in a shelter used by traffic guards in Yala while experts tried to defuse it, but there were no injuries, said police Col. Parinya Khwanmuang.

In a separate attack late Monday, an unidentified gunman shot and wounded a police officer as he drove home from work in the Saiburi district of nearby Pattani province.

IN another development, a letter threatening a ``plot'' against Thailand's embassies and ambassadors in Southeast Asia was mailed earlier this month from southern Malaysia, police said Tuesday.

Authorities are convinced the letter, sent 10 days ago to the Thai embassy in the Malaysian capital, is either connected with unrest in Thailand's Muslim-dominated south, or the deployment of Thai troops to Iraq, said police Lt. Gen. Chalermdej Chompoonut.

The Thai Foreign Ministry had said that the unsigned letter, written in English interspersed with a few words of Malay, said the Pattani Liberation Front had a ``plot of some sort'' against Thai missions and ambassadors in Malaysia and Singapore.

``I believe the letter was sent because it's the fashion - as a copycat - to cause chaos,'' said Chompoonut, who is the commander of the Thai Special Branch Police.

He said the Pattani Liberation Front was not a group listed with international police nor was it known to have carried out any previous attacks in Thailand or Malaysia.

He said Malaysia's national police chief, Tan Sri Bakri Omar, said a special team has been established to provide security for the Thai embassy, ambassador and other agencies.

``I've asked for a copy of the letter and have asked Thai evidence investigators to look at it,'' Chompoonut said, adding that Bakri said the threat was mailed from Negeri Sembilan state, about 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Kuala Lumpur. - AP

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