THAILAND: Muslim Women Carve Leading Roles as Insurgency Rages

  • by Marwaan Macan-Markar (baan phruching, thailand)
  • Thursday, August 27, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

Yet the fields overgrown with weeds had not gone unnoticed by a mother of two in this community of Malay-Muslims in Thailand’s southern region, which has been torn apart by a bloody insurgency now in its sixth year. The 45-year-old Halisa Manma felt it was time to restore the 72 hectares to help feed the 300 families of Baan Phruching and sell the excess rice in the market.

Halisa’s drive went beyond that initial spark to change the landscape of her village. She inspired 80 women, most of them mothers like Halisa, to join her in the arduous job of ploughing the fields after the monsoon broke, planting the rice seedlings and then harvesting the grain.

'The men in the village laughed at what we were doing. People in neighbouring villages also ridiculed our efforts,' says Halisa, who was dressed in the conservative attire of Muslim women here, her head covered in a light blue scarf, matching a light-coloured, long-sleeve blouse. 'We had a good crop in the end.'

It was an effort that brought the Thai military into the picture, too. For the Fourth Army Region command, which is battling a shadowy network of Malay-Muslim rebels, helped Halisa get rice seedlings and provide organic fertiliser as part of its hearts-and-minds pacification campaign in the troubled south.

This gesture helped reduce some of the suspicion between the heavily armed soldiers in this area and this Malay-Muslim village. 'Before we helped them there was a lot of distrust; the villagers didn’t openly talk to the soldiers,' says Col Kitcha Srithongkul, a deputy commander of the Thai troops manning security in the province of Songkhla, where Baan Phruching is located.

'That has changed now,' says the military officer about the village that has witnessed its own share of violence in the on-going insurgency, including the rebels burning down the local public school two years ago. 'The women helped to build peace by growing rice.'

The women of Baan Phruching are not an exception, however, in this southern region that has seen over 3,400 deaths since this current cycle of violence erupted in January 2004. Malay-Muslim women are taking on other leading roles in the provinces next to Songkhla — Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat — where the insurgency has been raging.

Typical of them is Anchana Semmina, a 35-year-old who runs a car service station in Sabai Yoi, a village close to Baan Phruching. For the past year, she has been helping 60 families whose husbands and sons have been jailed by the military on suspicion of being linked to the rebels.

'I visit them, I explain the law and I try to give them strength due to the troubles they are facing,' says Anchana, whose village burst into the spotlight during the first year of the insurgency. In April 2004, 19 young men who belonged to Sabai Yoi’s football team were shot to death by the police in a local restaurant. The police justified the killings as an act of self-defence.

The wounds and fear from that bloody morning still lingers. 'The families still feel sad. They also think that the government is only taking care of some people,' says Anchana. 'Yet they are learning from the talks I have with them. They are trying to understand what is going on.'

At times, this level of political engagement by the women has taken on a confrontational role. Till two years ago, Malay-Muslim women dressed in the hijab -- a traditional head covering worn by Muslim women -- would take to the streets in acts of public protest to object to reported acts of violence or unjust arrests of their men by the Thai troops. Some of these acts of defiance were influenced by men sympathetic to the rebels who stood behind the wall of women, giving orders.

Political passions also unfolded in calmer settings, such as the seminars and conferences conducted in hotels across this region to address concerns of human rights violations, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests.

'The Malay-Muslim women have been more outspoken at these meetings, even showing interest in getting legal training,' says Pornpen Khongkachonkiet, programme director of the Cross Cultural Foundation, a local non-governmental organisation championing justice and human rights causes.

'They are quick to get together to respond to situations on the ground, to monitor detention centres, to openly engage with the authorities,' she explained during an interview. 'They are the leaders in local peace-building efforts.'

This trend partly stems from the fear men have to take a lead in political activity, Pornpen reveals. 'They are being targeted from both sides. They fear being arrested or shot.'

It is a trend, furthermore, that is dramatically different from what was played out during a previous phase of the conflict here, where a former generation of Malay-Muslim rebels waged a separatist campaign against Thai troops during through the late 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s. That generation of rebels wanted to reclaim the provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat for the Malay-Muslims, who are a majority in this southern region of predominantly Buddhist Thailand.

The three provinces belonged to the Pattani kingdom, which was annexed by Siam, as Thailand was then known, in 1902. Malay-Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural and linguistic discrimination and, later, economic marginalisation.

The army is hoping that its hearts-and-minds campaign through small-scale agriculture programmes like the one it is backing in Baan Phruching will help offer a different picture -- that the Thai state does care for its largest minority. In other villages, Malay-Muslim women are being assisted to cultivate vegetables like eggplant and squash and herbs such as basil and lemon grass.

Yet the village that Halisa comes from reveals that harmony between the troops and villagers is far from perfect. While women have welcomed military assistance to grow rice locally, the young men have still welcome the troops into their lives.

They flee when the soldiers appear.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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