BANGKOK Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra went to the south of Thailand on Thursday after attacks blamed on Muslim insurgents this week in which six people were killed, including an 11-month-old child and two teachers, who are increasingly seen as targets.
More than 5,000 people have been killed since 2004 in the low-level insurgency in three Muslim majority provinces in the predominantly Buddhist country.
Five teachers have been killed in the past six weeks - the militants see schools as a main element in state attempts to assimilate ethnic Malay Muslims - and Yingluck held meetings with teachers as well as security officials during her visit.
"Whatever happens, children need to have a safe place to learn. I thank teachers for having the courage to teach and I will ask for reinforcements and extra troops to ensure their security," Yingluck told reporters.
Gunmen three adults and the baby in an attack on Tuesday at a tea shop in Narathiwat province.
Later that day, a headmistress and teacher were shot dead in the staff canteen of a school in Pattani province, 1,055 km (655 miles) south of the capital, Bangkok.
"Even before Tuesday's attack it was fairly clear the insurgents had launched a new campaign targeting the education system in the region," said Anthony Davis, a Thai-based analyst at security consulting firm IHS-Jane's.
Part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until annexed by Thailand in 1909 Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala provinces have seen almost daily shootings and bomb attacks since January 2004, when the separatist insurgency by ethnic Malays resurfaced after simmering for decades.
The heavy-handed tactics of Yingluck's brother, then premier Thaksin Shinawatra, were seen by many analysts as at least partly to blame for the intensification of the insurgency.
"MOST VIOLENT INTERNAL CONFLICT"
Since 2004, 5,206 people have been killed and 9,137 wounded, according to Deep South Watch, an organisation that monitors the violence.
Classes have been suspended at 1,200 schools in the three provinces until next week to assess security for pupils and teachers.
More than 50 children have been killed and some 340 injured in the provinces bordering Malaysia since 2004, according to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).
UNICEF's representative in Thailand, Bijaya Rajbhandari, called the attacks "a tragic, senseless and unacceptable act".
Successive governments have spent more than 160 billion baht in the past eight years to quell the violence but the insurgency has rumbled on.
Thailand's National Security Council says it will deploy an extra 4,000 police to the region by April 2013 to reinforce some 60,000 members of security forces already stationed there.
The International Crisis Group said in a report this week the government should reverse the militarisation of the south and end the culture of impunity for security forces, calling the insurgency "Southeast Asia's most violent internal conflict".
Civilians bear the brunt of the violence and the lack of accountability for crimes committed by security forces against Muslim villagers has increased distrust between residents and the state, the think-tank said.
(Additional reporting by Surapan Boonthanom; Editing by Alan Raybould and Robert Birsel)