UMPI students in Thailand eye political unrest

Posted May 17, 2010, at 9:21 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:30 a.m.

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Ten University of Maine at Presque Isle education students who left the U.S. earlier this month to complete their student teaching requirements at a private school in Thailand have not been affected by the unrest in the country, a university official said Monday afternoon.

A plan is in place to evacuate the students if violence in the country escalates further, according to Mike Sonntag, vice president of academic affairs at UMPI.

Thirty-seven people have died over the last five days during violent unrest in Bangkok with protesters demanding the government hold new elections. The Thai government said Monday it would accept a cease-fire offer from a protest leader if their fighters end raging street battles and return to their main camp in central Bangkok.

Sonntag said the students left the U.S. earlier this month for the Lertlah School based in Bangkok, where they are scheduled to spend 10 months teaching English, math, science and other subjects at the school, which has three campuses and caters to pupils up to the ninth grade. The UMPI students were accompanied by Barbara Chalou, UMPI professor of education, and Jack Stewart, director of student teaching-field experience, to help get them settled in and tour the Lertlah facilities.

“Right now, the Lertlah School has delayed its opening for one week,” Sonntag said Monday afternoon. “But our students are there and they are ready to go. … There is no unrest in the part of the city where the school and our students are located. The school has an evacuation plan in place, but school officials do not think it will come to that.”

Sonntag said UMPI officials are watching and waiting and are taking cues from administrators at the school and from the U.S. State Department.

“I have not talked to any of the students who are there,” Sonntag said. “We have heard from Barb [Chalou] and she said that the school is great, and the students are very happy to be there and to take part in this. They have had nothing negative to report.”

The 10 students are the first representatives of a partnership between UMPI and the Lertlah School. Last September, officials from UMPI and the school signed an agreement to allow UMPI education students to complete their student teaching requirements at Lertlah School. The school is bilingual with a portion of the courses taught in English. Education students in their final year at UMPI must complete a student teaching requirement, and under the new agreement, they can apply to fulfill that requirement at Lertlah School.

The grade level the student teachers will teach will depend on whether they are studying elementary education or secondary education at UMPI.

According to a travel warning posted on its website Monday, the State Department is cautioning U.S. citizens traveling to and residing in Thailand about the unrest in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Thousands of anti-government protesters, known as The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship or “Red Shirts,” have occupied areas of downtown Bangkok for weeks, calling for Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections. The Red Shirts support former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 bloodless military coup. Protests began in March and were initially peaceful, but the standoff escalated into street battles last week as the government deployed security forces to disperse the protesters.

The anti-government protesters are located in an encampment in a posh Bangkok shopping district, barricaded behind bamboo staves and tires. Protesters and security forces continued to clash on the streets Monday.

The U.S. Embassy in Bangkok, citing continuing security concerns, is operating under emergency personnel staffing only. The nonimmigrant and immigrant visa sections are closed until May 21. The embassy was planning a virtual town hall meeting for today for American citizens residing in Thailand to discuss security and safety.

The Lertlah School brings student teachers from the University of Winnipeg in Manitoba, but this year marks the first time the school has partnered with a U.S. university. Once school begins, the UMPI student teachers will be in classrooms of 25 to 30 students.

“We are optimistic that this situation is going to be taken care of and that this will be a great experience for our student teachers,” Sonntag said Monday.

The Associated Press |contributed to this report. For information on the town hall meeting, go to www.bangkok.usembassy.gov.

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