Teachers in Thailand's violent southern border provinces are to be allowed to carry guns in class. The decision was made yesterday by an emergency cabinet meeting which gave teachers special arms permits.
The government will supply flak jackets and second-hand guns to teachers who work in state schools, which are a target for drive-by shootings and bombers.
Scores of rural schools have been set alight by arsonists, who see them as a symbol of central government. At least twodozen Thai teachers at state schools have been killed since a dormant separatist movement erupted 18 months ago along the border with Malaysia, where Muslims outnumber Buddhists by four to one.
The teachers killed included Buddhists and Muslims and many were regarded as community leaders in a region of poor fishermen and rubber-tappers. Two thousand southern teachers have asked for pistol permits, and many are practising after school at military firing ranges.
A total of 2,700 teachers requested transfers to safer schools and others boycotted classrooms until they could be given better security. Schools have had to use volunteers or close.
The Education Minister, Adisai Bodharamik, said many of the 34,500 Buddhist teachers in Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces were fearful and demoralised. His deputy, Rung Kaewdaeng, said: "They need guns. This is now a necessity as many people have survived attacks because they shot back at the attackers."
Militants have killed at least seven people in the past six weeks. Since the start of 2004, more than 800 people have been killed and at least 1,500 injured, many by motorcycle gunmen.
But despite martial law and curfew, the violence has not abated. Buddhists are fleeing the conflict in growing numbers. In the first six months of this year more than 34,523 moved north, away from the conflict. Analysts say there is no evidence that foreign Islamists directly instigate the regional violence, which has roots in the 1980s.