YALA, Thailand (Reuters) - Headmaster Rossi Sulon laughs dismissively when asked about his school’s links to a separatist insurgency in Thailand’s deep south.
“Look around you,” he says as children play in the courtyard of the Thamma Wittaya Islamic school in Yala.
“Does this look like a breeding ground for terrorists?”
Thailand’s biggest Islamic school has been under a cloud of suspicion since violence flared in 2004 in the mainly Muslim provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani.
Authorities have accused its teachers of recruiting for a rebellion they say was masterminded by the school’s former principal, Sapaeing Basor, who is believed to have fled Thailand.
Sulon said his staff at the school of 5,400 students is not involved. He also insisted Basor, who has a 10 million baht ($293,000) price on his head, played no part in the near-daily shootings and bombings that have killed nearly 3,500 people.
“There’s no recruitment or radical teaching here. We teach our students to become good Muslims,” the soft-spoken Sulon told Reuters at his school office.
“I know Sapaeing is a good man. Everyone respects him,” he added. “They are chasing the wrong man, a man who fled because he thought he would be killed.”
A study released by the International Crisis Group on Monday said Islamic schools in the deep south were inviting devout Muslim youths to take part in “extracurricular indoctrination programmes” before becoming rebel foot soldiers.
The report said the conflict had no links to Islamist groups or a global jihadi movement but was an independence struggle for the region, which was a Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Buddhist Thailand a century ago.
No credible group has publicly claimed responsibility for the unrest and the military is struggling to curtail the violence, which could further dent Thailand’s image as a safe place for tourism and foreign investment.
Sulon denied that his school was involved in such indoctrination programmes, but he admitted he could not control what happened after school hours.
“There are bad boys in every school but what goes on after they leave is not our fault,” he said.
Sulon said past raids on schools by security forces were based on poor intelligence, and his students blamed the deaths of eight of his teachers, some outside the school gates, on the authorities.
“My students were very angry -- schools should not be targeted,” he said. “How do I tell them their teacher hasn’t showed up for class because he’s been arrested or killed?”
Sulon said he did not know who was behind the unrest or what the motivation was, but he did not believe ordinary people wanted independence.
Nevertheless, Thailand’s failure to recognise the identity, language and culture of the region’s ethnic Malay majority would only prolong the violence, he said.
“Our history is not part of the curriculum, but my students know this land was not always part of Thailand,” he said.
“They have tried to make people Thai, change the way we dress, our names, our culture and language and this had made people angry,” he said.
Editing by Darren Schuettler and Bill Tarrant