Boarding schools teach good not evil, say Thailand's southern Muslims

Lam Mai, Thailand - Phattana Islam Wittaya school, funded by the community and Harrod's owner Mohamed al-Fayed, seems a far cry from the militant training base that critics in Bangkok accuse Islamic schools of being.

One staffer at the school in Yala province's Lam Mai village wears a Fulham Football Club shirt, while behind him looms a school building bearing name of the club's owner, al-Fayed.

Inside, principal Mayudin Samae, in charge of this 45-year-old school for 20 years, wears blue trousers and checked shirt, sporting trimmed salt and pepper hair and a neat grey goatee beard.

Al-Fayed has helped build offices and classrooms, as well as several single-sex dormitories, while the Thai government also provides money because it is registered with Bangkok, Samae says.

Wichai Chaichitwanitchakul, a parliamentarian with the ruling Thai Rak Thai party, has repeatedly called for boarding schools, or known locally as pondoks or ponohs, to be shut down, claiming they breed militants and griping that students don't learn Thai.

"The men who talk like that, they don't know the truth, they rely on second-hand information," Samae says.

"Pondoks are good for the community as they teach students to be good people."

Schools are on the frontline of the conflict that has claimed more than 950 lives in the Muslim-majority provinces of Thailand's south since January 2004.

Teachers are frequent targets of the near-daily shootings, bombings and arson attacks in the region, but also are in the middle of a political tug-of-war.

Shadowy groups of militants often attack public schools, seen as a symbol of Bangkok's attempts to impose Thai culture on a region that was an independent sultanate until a century ago.

But politicians like Wichai attack Islamic schools as terrorist training grounds and want them closed.

Education Minister Chaturon Chaisang has resisted such calls, saying the government had no plan to shut the schools.

Students at Samae's school learn four languages: Arabic during morning prayers and studying the Koran; the local Yawi dialect for history; Thai for mathematics, sciences and social studies; and English as a foreign language.

The school gives its 1,450 students -- 800 of them boys -- Internet access, and Samae says he wants to buy more computers and headsets for English instruction.

The students have also had to learn to face the violence.

Two teachers, both Muslims, have been shot dead on their way to work since May, Samae says. Like many of the dead, police believe they were seemingly random victims of drive-by shootings by militants out to sew fear in the population.

"We'll keep going ... it's our duty to teach the students," Samae says.

Asked if any students were scared, the softly-spoken principal replied: "They get used to it."

Unlike at public schools in the region, teachers here have no armed escorts to and from class, he says.

"I have told all of my teachers they have to be patient in order to make good deeds, because when you make good deeds, it makes you happy," Samae says.

For the 285 students at Ban Taseh school in Yala town, about 10 kilometers (six miles) away, the day starts at 4:00 am for prayers, followed by reading the Koran and breakfast at 7:00 am.

Largely from Yala, the students, including 185 girls, are aged from 14 to 21 and all board in single-sex dormitories.

Aside from religious studies, boys learn electronics and mechanics, while girls have sewing classes. Students also play badminton, football and volleyball.

Students live in dormitories made of corrugated iron. "I love you" is spray painted in English outside one boy's dorm.

"I'm happy to learn here, there's lot of activities," says 16-year-old Nuriham Borthor, sitting with her friends under a pomelo fruit tree.

"I'd like to know more about my religion."

Hama Fula has run the school since it opened more than 50 years ago. He sits on a brown patterned carpet, behind him a large coloured poster photograph of a beach paradise of palm trees and clear blue sea.

Outside, a military helicopter flies low overhead, puncturing the silence.

"Sometimes they interrupt, so when they come, we stop classes," Hama says.

He shows seven Thai language text books on the carpet, and says his school receives government funding that replaced money raised from the community.

"This school is registered, it's legal, so we use the Thai curriculum," Hama says.

"People who do wrong, it's individuals who do it, not stereotypes of Muslims and Islam," he says, explaining why he doesn't worry about his school being closed.

Beneath towering coconut palms in neighboring Pattani province is the highest profile Islamic school shut down by the government.

The closure of Jihadi Wittaya Islamic school drew international attention when Thailand's government claimed it had found ammunition, evidence of military training, secret documents concerning an independent Pattani state, and Al-Qaeda training CDs.

The family who runs the school has denied the charges.

A relative of the school's former manager says soldiers still pass on patrol by the now empty school.

"Grandmother's upset when she sees the soldiers, because she's reminded of the bad things that happened, the soldiers coming here, shouting," the young woman says from the doorway of her home.

The students left quickly after the soldiers came. In one dormitory, empty clothes hangers hang from naked light bulb wiring. On the floor lies raggedy old bedding -- polyester quilts, blankets and pillows.

"It's really quiet now the children are gone," the young woman says.