IN THE geography class at St Mark's High School, boys play chess on a board scratched onto a workbench in one corner, while in another part of the school a girl knits a scarf while her friends talk.

Swazi teachers have been on strike for more than a month, but so far their abandoned classrooms are the only tangible result of a movement that wants not just salary increases but democratic reforms in Africa's last absolute monarchy.

"Our ultimate goal is democracy," says Sibongile Mazibuko, president of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers, which sees King Mswati as the country's biggest problem. "He creates the poverty himself."

Teachers went on strike on June 22 demanding a 4,5% salary increase. Other public servants joined briefly, but the movement is stuttering after nurses returned to work last Tuesday following a court interdict.

Sporadic protests have drawn hundreds into the streets, where police greet them with rubber bullets, water cannons and batons. Now most teachers go to school only to sign attendance registers, but still do not teach.

Police have arrested 41 teachers, and the union has spent almost 150000 emalangeni ($18000) on legal fees, Ms Mazibuko says.

"The protests have become unsustainable. We are looking at stayaways, picketing on the premises," she says.

Their financial demands are modest - they want a 4,5% raise, while inflation is about 9%.

It is their political demands that roil the palace, which likes to paint a picture of a traditional kingdom where the monarch is revered by his subjects.

That image has faded as pro-democracy protests mushroomed over the past year, sparked by a crippling financial crisis. The International Monetary Fund has urged the government to slash its public wage bill as the economy stagnates, but has pulled its team from the country after the kingdom made no progress on reforms.

Striking teachers have had their salaries slashed as authorities retaliate against the strikes, receiving as little as 30 emalangeni for their last pay cheque.

Some were handed dismissal letters and threatened with jail for contempt of court if they did not report to work, says government spokesman Percy Simelane.

"Even if money could come now it would be very difficult to increase salaries," he says. "We need to adhere to this advice or sink."

Teachers point to a 30% increase that legislators awarded themselves in 2010.

"If you've paid yourself so much, why can't you pay them?" Ms Mazibuko asks.

"The politicians' kids are outside the country. The king's children are outside the country. They will not invest in educating kids for the poor," she says.

Public servants also blame the lavish lifestyle of King Mswati and his 13 wives. Forbes magazine rates him as among the world's 15 richest royals, keeping each wife in her own palace.

This week opposition groups claimed three of the queens and an entourage of 66 would travel to Las Vegas for a holiday.

The legislators' big pay cheques "could be contributing towards the hefty salary bill that we have," Mr Simelane says. "If it is not (withdrawn) amid the outcry . discontent will be very rife."

But he insisted democratic reforms were not necessary.

"We are one of the most democratic societies in the region," he says. "The king loves his people. I don't think he can create conditions where people go hungry."

About 60% of the tiny country's 1,1-million people live on less than $2 a day. The United Nations World Food Programme says one-fifth of the country experienced food shortages this year.

Mr Simelane also justifies police violence against protesters. "In most cases provocation of some kind came out," he says. "We have one of the most disciplined police forces in the region. They normally don't shoot to kill."

Life in Swaziland continues despite the school groundings, and the tiny country's troubles are far from the international spotlight.

Other government workers are also demanding raises, but generally are not downing tools.

But Ms Mazibuko is adamant that growing awareness will see her movement succeed. "Little by little, people are seeing the light," she says.

Sapa-AFP