BANGKOK, Thailand -- When a $10 million U.S.-built surveillance blimp for hunting southern Islamist guerrillas spectacularly crashed during the prime minister's visit, it symbolized another military failure against insurgents who are now assassinating more teachers.

"This war is not over," boasted leaflets distributed in the region allegedly by Muslim rebels during Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra's visit on Dec. 13.

"Do not count the teachers' corpses just yet," the leaflets warned.

More than 5,000 people on all sides have been killed in the south during the past nine years, including more than 157 teachers.

The mostly Buddhist teachers are targeted because Islamists reject the government's curriculum which pushes integration with Buddhist-majority Thailand, use of Thai language, a sanitized history of the region's rebellion, and other classes.

The guerrillas recently escalated their assassination of teachers, prompting more than 1,200 southern schools to shut down on Dec. 13-14, to protest the lack of security.

The cancellation of classes came after five men attacked a school in Pattani province, killing the school director and a teacher on Dec. 11.

Each day, many teachers ride in military trucks to and from schools, or in their own vehicles in military convoys.

For the past few years, camouflaged troops armed with assault rifles, and protected by steel helmets and bullet-proof vests, have guarded southern schools where Muslim and Buddhist children attend classes.

Military officers in uniform occasionally lecture the youngsters. School kids chat with troops, who point their assault rifles downward and respond as best they can.

Minority ethnic Malay-Thai Islamists, however, appear to be slowly achieving their decades-long goals of closing Thailand's southern schools, terrorizing Buddhist residents into fleeing, crippling the local economy and making it impossible for the U.S.-trained military to defeat them.

The insurgents also kill Muslims who do not support them, or who inform to 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 more than 100 years ago.

Before Islam arrived in the 14th century, indigenous Hindus, Buddhists and animists lived there.

Today, many southern Muslims, including non-violent civilians, seek greater autonomy and justice, to stop alleged extrajudicial killings, torture and other atrocities committed by the Buddhist-dominated military.

The insurgents, however, dream of carving out a territory ruled by laws drawn from their holy book, the Koran.

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.

As expected, Prime Minister Yingluck was unable to present any lasting solution during her visit.

Mrs. Yingluck's appearance however was marred when the army's fat, oval-shaped, U.S.-built blimp crashed in Pattani province while operating for her.

"The blimp had to perform an emergency landing because of turbulence," said army deputy spokesman Col. Winthai Suwaree.

The near-silent "Sky Dragon" airship, equipped with infrared thermal cameras, has been mocked by Thai media and analysts as worthless ever since the army purchased it in 2010, because it has never been able to fully function for very long.

The blimp was built by California-based Aeros, and uses five high-definition, zoomable digital V-14MSII spy cameras see during daytime and night.

The cameras were manufactured by Axsys Technologies in Grass Valley, California, which was recently acquired by General Dynamics.

Two of the cameras are on the 153-foot (46.6-meter) long, 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 which highlights military purchases.

Aria International, in Arlington, Virginia, 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," it said.

In addition to its seemingly useless performance against guerrillas, the airship requires expensive maintenance and helium.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco, California, reporting news from Asia since 1978, and recipient of Columbia University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three non-fiction books about Thailand, including "Hello My Big Big Honey!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews; 60 Stories of Royal Lineage; and Chronicle of Thailand: Headline News Since 1946. Mr. Ehrlich also contributed to the final chapter, Ceremonies and Regalia, in a new book titled King Bhumibol Adulyadej, A Life's Work: Thailand's Monarchy in Perspective.

His websites are




(Copyright 2012 Richard S Ehrlich)