Cablegate: Education and Civil Society in the Deep South: Bitterness

DE RUEHBK #4822/01 2491009
R 061009Z SEP 07





E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Education and Civil Society in the Deep South: Bitterness
and Distrust Towards the RTG

1. (SBU) Summary: During an August 28-29, 2007 trip to the three
southernmost provinces of Thailand - Narathiwat, Pattani, and Yala -
PAO, AIO, ARSO and two locally-employed Thai staff (LES), visiting
rural educational institutions to deliver educational resources and
materials about the United States, got a first-hand look at the
clear shortage of adequate teaching materials and qualified
teachers. Throughout our visit, educators and civil society
activists expressed concern about the negative impact the continuing
violence was having on education, the economy, and the fabric of
local society. Our ethnic-Malay Muslim interlocutors directed
bitter disappointment about the overall decline in their communities
to the RTG and its perceived inability or unwillingness to provide
adequate support; an ethnic-Thai Buddhist RTG employee in Yala
defended the government's record. Local activists seek to provide
social and community services through their own initiatives, with
varying degrees of success. End summary.

A Road Less Traveled Leads to a School Less Fortunate
--------------------------------------------- --------

2. (SBU) On August 28, PAO, AIO, ARSO and two locally-employed Thai
staff (LES) visited an elementary school in the district of Muang in
the outskirts of Narathiwat. The predominantly ethnic-Malay Muslim
area around the school, which has a total population of 1,139 people
-- mostly farmers who use public land for cultivation and have a per
capita income of 28,000 baht a year (approximately USD 860, compared
to a national average of USD 3155) -- has few private resources to
support the education of its children. The Baan Toh-Nor primary
school provides free primary school education to more than 170
pupils from three neighboring villages.

3. (SBU) Security concerns, as well as Baan Toh-Nor school's
extremely basic infrastructure and dearth of resources, were evident
upon our arrival. PAO and team were greeted on a dusty, rural road
by a "Welcome to Baan Toh-Nor School" banner on one side of the
entrance and a mounted M1 machine gun flanked by several security
guards, on the other. (Note: We asked and were told that this was
protection for our visit, not standard practice. End note). Led
onto the grounds by a handful of heavily-armed soldiers, we met the
School Director, Mr. Jit Linen, who escorted us past a line of
colorfully-dressed ethnic-Malay Muslim school children who "wai-ed"
(bowed in traditional Thai fashion) to honor their Western guests.
PAO was seated at the place of honor in a makeshift, open-air VIP
"room," -- outside, under the trees, on a red leather couch -- next
to an Imam who also served as the Islamic studies teacher. A
graduate of Al-Azhar University in Cairo, he spoke fluent Arabic
with the PAO (also an Arabic speaker). The teachers, students, and
perhaps some parents were seated behind us. A military policeman --
the school's "regular" security -- dressed in fatigues and carrying
an M-16, milled throughout the crowd; later, during lunch, he was
seen clapping, singing, and amusing the children.

4. (SBU) After welcoming us, Jit stood in front of our donated
materials, including a refurbished computer and bookshelves, and
read a speech in Thai. He talked about the institution's
development from a private Islamic studies school (pondok) founded
in 1947 to hybrid government-pondok school that registered with the
Ministry of Education (MOE) and, consequently, followed the standard
MOE curriculum along with 2-3 hours a week of Islamic studies. He
noted that the school first received financial support from the RTG
in 1976 to build a new four-room school building. PAO responded,
also in Thai, citing American interest in supporting education and
English language teaching in their community and throughout

5. (SBU) During lunch, PAO and team met with administrators and
teachers and toured the modest school building. The science lab
contained little more than dusty beakers and test tubes. Moreover,
despite the inclusion of two-three hours of English language
instruction a week in the curriculum, it was clear that no one --
not even the two English teachers we met -- spoke or understood much
English. Repeated requests to see an English language textbook went
unanswered, leading us to wonder whether any such texts existed.

Faith-Based English Language Lessons

6. (SBU) The next day, PAO and team traveled to Pattani and visited
another hybrid government-pondok primary school. Located just off a
paved road, the Jariya Islam Suksa primary school had significantly
better infrastructure than Ban Toh-Nor and the classroom walls were
decorated colorfully with simple Arabic words and with ABCs.
Although the school had been burned to the ground 10 years earlier
and only four years ago had nearly been closed by local villagers --
apparently due to rumors it would receive support from the RTG --

BANGKOK 00004822 002 OF 004

there were no soldiers or other security present. We were greeted
by the founders of the school, a married Muslim couple, who had met
in Bangkok as students at Ramkamhaeng University. The ethnic-Thai
wife, who hailed from Bangkok and spoke only Thai, had converted
from Buddhism to Islam after taking a university course on
comparative religion.

7. (SBU) Like Baan Toh-Nor, Jariya Islam Suksa is an Islamic school
registered with the MOE and, as a result, receives about 60% of its
funding from the RTG. The rest of Jariya's funding comes from the
sale of educational books, fees collected for speaking engagements
by its director who is pursuing her master's in Islamic Studies, as
well as private loans. The school's 25 teachers, mostly young and
female, provided instruction on subjects ranging from science to
math and Islam to English. When asked, the directors took great
pleasure in showing us the school's English language teaching
materials, bringing over a stack of the series "ABC for Zikrullah,"
an Islamic-focused textbook in which "A is for Allah" and "L is for
La-ilaha-ila-Allah" ("there is no god but God").

Elite Exception that Highlights the Rule

8. (SBU) The visits to these two schools stood in stark contrast to
the more affluent and professional private Islamic schools in the
south, including Thailand's largest and most prestigious private
Islamic school, Attarkiah Islamiah school (K-12) in Narathiwat,
which PAO visited in December 2006. We heard about the school again
on the trip during a chance airport meeting with Phaison Toryib, an
ethnic-Malay Muslim National Legislative Assembly (NLA) member from
Narathiwat, who is the school's manager and son of its founder.
Attarkiah Islamiah, which receives private and foreign support
(including Asia Foundation via USAID funding) as well as support
from the RTG, admits students based on an entrance exam, drawing the
most talented and often affluent, ethnic-Malay Muslim students from
the three provinces. Phaisan spoke (in excellent English) about the
importance of education in his household, noting proudly that his
children learn and speak Thai, English, Arabic, and Malayu. Paisan
added that although some foreign teachers at the school had left, a
British couple remained.

Yes to the Constitution, No to Separation

9. (SBU) At a child care center located at a mosque on the road from
Pattani to Yala, PAO was greeted by young children and the center's
director, an elderly gentleman who spoke passable English and
reminisced about a visit to New York several years earlier. He
recalled a computer donation by a former PAO about a decade ago, and
requested assistance from us as well. He said that the 200
baht/month per child, paid by the parents to place their children in
the center, barely covered costs. He spoke about the violence and
blamed the Thai government for providing neither security nor
support to the local people. The director also asserted that the
people in the deep South did not want to separate from Thailand,
noting that "nearly 80% of people in the South voted yes to the
August 19 constitutional referendum." In the same breath, he
complained about the continued presence of the RTG military and
spoke of the need for "pens, not guns."

Economic Woes Weigh on the Minds of Many

10. (SBU) Throughout the visit, many of our interlocutors complained
about the troubled economic situation. An academic from Narathiwat
reminisced about the once bustling shops and open markets that are
now empty, and told how the price of longgon, a popular local fruit,
dropped from a high of 90 baht/kg some ten years ago to 30 baht/kg
to less than 4 baht/kg this year. The initial price drop was due to
an oversupply driven by over-planting, but the most recent dive was
the result of tourists and exporters having been driven out by the
violence, he said.

11. (SBU) A local farmer turned-civil society leader in Narathiwat,
Hama Mayanu (please protect), is a force behind the development of a
60-member women's embroidery cooperative that produces women's
hijabs (Islamic scarves) for export to Malaysia and Japan. The
women received 50 baht for each scarf, while the Malaysian investor,
who provided the material, took 500 baht, Hama said. When asked why
they did not try to develop the business locally, Hama said they did
not have the international contacts and that the women needed more
training to produce scarves of international quality. Asked if the
RTG provided any assistance, he complained that a recent visit by
district authorities had been fruitless and that their application
process is too cumbersome.

BANGKOK 00004822 003 OF 004

Two Views of Community Life, Both Agree Affluent Leaving
--------------------------------------------- ---------

12. (SBU) Several ethnic-Malay Muslim interlocutors also focused on
the dissolution of the social fabric of communities in the deep
South. Our academic contact from Narathiwat was particularly
troubled by the number of people, who had the money to do so,
leaving the once tight-knit community. Since Thais in general and
particularly those in the South "feel a deep connection to their
land," he explained, the situation would have to be particularly
hopeless for people to leave. He told PAO and team that he would
never abandon Narathiwat and "hoped to die there." Referring to how
the violence had changed social customs, he said that when someone
dies (or is killed) in the evening hours, family and mourners no
longer rush to the family's side due to security concerns. Rather,
they wait until the next morning to visit. As for the Thai
government, when asked about its role, he had only bitterness: "RTG
gives money to the dead man's family. That's all they do."

13. (SBU) In contrast, an ethnic-Thai Buddhist contact in Yala
defended the RTG's actions in the deep South, stating that Thai
security forces were implementing a number of "secret" programs that
helped stem the violence, but received no credit because such
programs could not be publicized. While she held ethnic-Malay
Muslims responsible for the violence, she said "the RTG had to tread
carefully because if they acted on the basis of 'an eye for an eye,'
it would bring heavy international criticism for violating human
rights." She also asserted that ethnic-Thai Buddhists and
ethnic-Malay Muslims in her community coexisted peacefully as they
have done for decades, and cooperated together in a neighborhood
protection program. Nonetheless, she acknowledged that many wealthy
ethnic-Malay Muslim families had left Yala for Hat Yai, which has
spurred a housing boom there. (Note: AIO noted at least three new
luxury housing complexes being built on the main road between Yala
and Hat Yai. End note.) Although she had the right to leave after
her two-year contractual obligation, this RTG employee planned to
stay because she felt that "her work was not yet done."

Civil Society Takes an Active Role

14. (SBU) A dynamic and prominent academic who is a former director
of the American Studies program at Prince of Songkla University in
Pattani, Dr. Arin Sa-idi (please protect) leads a women's network,
The Friends of Thai Muslim Women (FTMW), which seeks to fill the
void in the provision of social services. The FTMW is a group of
local women, all involved in their own professions, who get together
to work as volunteers on special projects. Several women, including
one who ran an orphanage for Muslims, briefed us on their work. For
example, the FTMW received a grant from the Asia Foundation to work
on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), as the deep South is a transit
point for the transport of women from northern Thailand to Malaysia.
Another key initiative they launched was to help women and children
deal with effects of the unrest, including providing widows of
victims of the violence with skills to support their families. Dr.
Arin also bemoaned Thai reporting of casualties that stresses
ethnic-Thai Buddhist victims, neglecting that most attacks have been
against ethnic-Malay Muslims. In addition, the group informed PAO
that the FTMW recently submitted a proposal for support to the
Southern Border Provinces Administrative Center (SPBAC). One of the
women, admitting that one of her best friends was a member of the
SPBAC, said she would be lobbying her to get support for the
proposal. PAO donated a refurbished computer and Muslim Life in
American materials to FTMW to be kept at the orphanage and shared
with local women activists.


15. (SBU) While Thailand's educational system faces significant
problems throughout the country and English teaching is notably
weak, the violence that pervades the South, often targeted
intentionally at teachers, has made teaching and learning almost
impossible. All our interlocutors throughout the two-day visit
spoke about the current situation in the school system in the deep
South as a crisis, and expressed fear that this generation of
children would be left without an education. Although there are
some good private Islamic high schools in the deep South, the vast
majority of educational institutions are extremely poor,
under-resourced, and suffer from a dearth of qualified teachers and
teacher training. The violence, which is draining the affluent and
educated local populace while keeping Western visitors and teachers
at bay, seems to be leaving the poor and uneducated with nowhere to
turn, other than to their faith and religion.

BANGKOK 00004822 004 OF 004

16. (SBU) Civil society activists are trying to stem the unraveling
of once tight communities through social and economic programs.
However, with meager financial resources, a shortage of educated
activists able to tap external donors, the lack of Westerners and
most others willing to visit the region, and the apparent emigration
of well-off local ethnic-Malay Muslims as well as ethnic-Thai
Buddhists, the situation appears bleak. Even if the RTG is able to
stem the violence in the foreseeable future, much work is needed to
ensure that the next generation in the deep South is provided the
knowledge and skills required for them to become productive members
of society.

17. (SBU) Notably, all our ethnic-Malay Muslim contacts blamed the
RTG for the current problems and no one mentioned the insurgents in
any capacity, leaving the violence without an actor. At the same
time, we were often "waii-ed" (bowed to, in Thai tradition) and all
who spoke Thai -- and many of them did -- did so willingly and
without any sense of political import.

18. (SBU) Post appreciates ECA and EAP/PD assistance that will
enable us to provide English language materials and additional
English Access Microscholarship funds to support local schools and
institutions in the deep South. This visit demonstrated how much
access to these materials and English language teaching is needed
and laid the groundwork for an upcoming RELO visit, if the security
situation permits, in which he will determine how these resources
can be best allocated and utilized. End comment.


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