BANGKOK, Thailand – The crash of a $10 million U.S.-built surveillance blimp during the Thai prime minister’s tour of that nation’s Pattani province last month symbolized Thailand’s failure to stifle a Muslim insurgency plaguing the southern portion of the country.
Malay-Thai Islamists have pursued decades-long goals of closing Thailand's southern schools, terrorizing Buddhist residents into fleeing the region, crippling the local economy, and making it impossible for the U.S.-trained military to defeat them.
More than 5,000 people on all sides have been killed in the south during the past nine years, including more than 157 teachers.
"This war is not over. Don’t count the teachers' corpses just yet," boasted leaflets distributed in the region allegedly by Muslim rebels during Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's visit on Dec. 13.
The mostly Buddhist teachers are targeted because Islamists reject the government's curriculum, which pushes integration with Buddhist-majority Thailand, use of Thai language, and a sanitized history of the region's rebellion, among other courses.
The guerrillas recently escalated their assassination of teachers, prompting more than 1,200 southern schools to shut down Dec. 13-14 to protest the lack of security.
The cancellation of classes came after five men attacked a school in the Pattani province, killing the school director and a teacher on Dec. 11.
Many teachers ride in military trucks to and from schools or in their own vehicles in military convoys. Troops armed with assault rifles and protected by steel helmets and bulletproof vests have guarded southern schools where Muslim and Buddhist children attend classes.
The insurgents also kill Muslims who do not support them or who inform the authorities about the Islamists' activities.
Muslims form 94 percent of the population in three rebel-torn provinces—Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala—along the border with Muslim-majority Malaysia. The Buddhist kingdom of Thailand annexed the resource-rich area over a century ago.
The insurgents wish to carve out a territory ruled by the edicts of sharia law while many Muslims in the region wish to see the activities of the Buddhist-dominated military curtailed.
The Islamists rarely issue statements or claim credit for attacks and their leadership is unknown.
The army believes 3,000 rebels fight under a coalition known as Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or National Revolutionary Front. They are allied with Runda Kumpulan Kecil, or "Small Patrol Group," guerrillas.
Prime Minister Yingluck was unable to present any lasting solution during her visit and suffered an embarrassment when the surveillance blimp crashed in Pattani province.
"The blimp had to perform an emergency landing because of turbulence," army deputy spokesman Col. Winthai Suwaree told the Bangkok Post.
Thai media and analysts have mocked the near-silent “Sky Dragon” airship since the army purchased it in 2010 because it has never been able to stay fully functional for long.
California-based Aeros built the blimp, which uses five high-definition, zoomable digital V-14MSII spy cameras to see during daytime and night.
Two of the cameras are on the 153-foot manned blimp and the other three are on relay helicopters that fly nearby.
The U.S. Department of State Defense Trade Controls section approved the cameras' sale to Thailand, Aria International's President and CEO Mike "Bing" Crosby said in a 2010 interview.
The deal included "a blast-resistant armored truck designed and built by Blackwater USA, now Xe," to allow ground troops to receive the blimp's data and respond, according to the Defense Industry Daily.
Aria International sold the blimp to Thailand and said the "poor man's satellite" could hunt Islamist insurgents.
The army now has to spend at least $1 million to repair it.
"The inspection revealed that the blimp's propeller, motor, and ‘gondola' passenger cabin area would have to be repaired," the Bangkok Post reported.
The blimp's nylon-based "envelope fabric has to be replaced," according to the Bangkok Post.