Schools close, teachers targeted and panicked by Muslim insurgents in southern Thailand

BANGKOK (AP) — Panicked teachers in Thailand's restive south stayed home from school Wednesday after two teachers were killed in broad daylight amid threats from suspected Muslim insurgents that 20 would die.

The Narathiwat Teachers Federation called for more than 300 schools across the province to close Wednesday for several days, but it was not immediately clear how many opted to shut. One district in the province said five out of 157 schools would close for the rest of the week.

Public school teachers are viewed by insurgents as government collaborators who impose Buddhist culture through the school system. They are targeted along with civil servants and local officials in Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat, which are the only Muslim-majority areas in the Buddhist country.

On Tuesday, a husband and wife, both Buddhist and primary school teachers at a public school, were riding to a morning market on a motorcycle before school started when they were shot and killed in a barrage of bullets fired from a suspected insurgent on the back seat of a passing motorbike, police said.

Their deaths raised the toll of teachers and school workers killed by the violence to 135.

The violence that flared in 2004 has claimed more than 4,200 lives. Muslims and Buddhists have been targeted by the violence, but the latest backlash against teachers has been aimed at Buddhists.

The killings were foreshadowed by an ominous warning several days ago when anonymous fliers were distributed in Narathiwat villages that said: "WANTED: 20 Deaths of Buddhist teachers," said Sanguan Inrak, president of the teacher's federation.

"Teachers here are scared," said Sanguan, who called the warning messages a "regular tactic" by insurgents and the latest illustration of the need for greater protection for teachers, many of whom travel to work with security guards.

"Teachers on the way to work are provided with some safety, but schools are not the only places teachers go in their daily lives," he said. "We have to determine if security units can help protect them when they are at home and during non-working hours."

Narathiwat Governor Thanon Vejkorakanont said Tuesday the deaths "had a significant impact on the morale of teachers in the areas" and that school administrators would meet this week to discuss the security situation.

The attacks — which include drive-by shootings and bombings — are believed intended to frighten Buddhist residents into leaving the southern provinces.

The insurgents have not issued specific demands but are generally believed to be fighting to carve out an independent Muslim state in the three southern provinces. While many in the south do not support the rebels, there is a widespread feeling among Muslims that they are treated as second-class citizens by predominantly Buddhist Thai authorities.