Insurgency Turns Malay-Muslim Women into Leaders

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By Marwaan Macan-Markar

SONGKHLA, Thailand, Sep 23, 2010 (IPS) - When her husband was arrested for links to an insurgency raging in this southern region, Pattama Heemmima joined the ranks of Malay-Muslim women forced into the unfamiliar routine of visiting police stations, military camps and courts to secure the freedom of their imprisoned kin.

At the same time, there was no local organisation she could turn to for help regarding her husband, Nawawee Daohumso, who was taken in by the Thai police in March 2008 for his alleged role in a killing a civilian.

But by the time a court acquitted Nawawee in March 2010 -- enabling him and 34-year-old Pattama to rebuild a marriage that was only two months old when police made the wrongful arrest -- Pattama had found an answer to her search for a local helping hand.

She and her elder sister, Anchana Semmina, had resolved to take on new roles as activists for justice. In mid-2009, the two sisters had set up the Hearty Support Group in the southern Thai province of Songkhla to help families struggling to secure the release of their jailed fathers, husbands and sons.

"I wanted to help these women who were desperate after their husbands or sons were arrested by the police, the military," says Pattama. "I had learnt so much after my husband’s arrest that I wanted to share it with the others in my community."

Currently, the ad-hoc help network that the two women run includes helping the families of 16 men from a local mosque’s management committee who were arrested in 2008 and are waiting for their day in court. Visiting lawyers or meeting the police on behalf of the 50 families they are helping now occupies a good part of her day, says Pattama.

The early achievements of the Hearty Support Group, however, are not an exception. It is but one of a growing number of local civil society groups that are steadily transforming the political landscape in the insurgency-torn provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Songkhla, close to the Thai-Malaysian border.

"This is a direct response to the conflict. The groups taking on justice issues are largely led by women," says Angkhana Neelapaijit, author of a study on the ‘Role and Challenges of Muslim Women in the Restive Southern Border Provinces’. "They are the ones you will see outside the prisons, military barracks or in the courts."

"The men are afraid of speaking out or confronting the authorities," reveals Angkhana, whose lawyer husband was ‘disappeared’ in March 2004 for exposing police brutality. "The women’s groups have become very strong now. There are more of them now than four years ago."

But this transformation is facing stiff resistance from some quarters of the very conservative Malay-Muslim community, where women are expected to play domestic roles and have historically been deprived of leadership roles in the social and political hierarchy. "The religious fundamentalists try to discredit these women," Angkhana tells IPS.

The first signs of women coming to the fore was in 2004, the year the current cycle of violence erupted following a raid on a military barracks by shadowy Malay-Muslim rebels in January. In October that year, 78 Muslim protesters died from suffocation after being packed like logs into military trucks and driven for hours to an army camp.

The women who lost their men – mostly from Tak Bai village in Narathiwat province – took on pioneering roles to create an ad-hoc network with support from Bangkok-based rights activists. "The men, even the imam, have stayed away from our activity because they fear the army," recalls a woman from Tak Bai who spoke on condition of anonymity. "(But) we want to keep the memory of our dead husbands and fathers alive through regular activity."

In the first radio programme broadcast early this year, the Pattani-based Friends of the Victimised Family Group featured interviews with women in the villages talking about impact the violence has had on them.

Others like the Yala-based We Peace conducts public seminars, where women who have relatives in jail are invited to express their concerns, at times even directly to military officers present.

A military officer who has been in such seminars concedes that women in civil society groups show "courage and are determined" in their encounters with officials. "They have become a noticeable presence since 2005. They make more noise than the men," the combat officer, on his second tour of duty in the south, says in an interview.

The fate of some 450 Malay-Muslim men in southern jails on charges of terrorism remains the primary concern of the women activists. Others, like the women from Tak Bai, have taken their own steps in response to the killings in this conflict. Over 4,300 people have died and 11,000 people have been injured over the past six-and-a-half years.

The current explosion of violence is the latest in a dispute rooted in history, from the time Siam, as Thailand was then known, annexed the three southern provinces in 1902. Until then, they had been part of the Malay Muslim kingdom of Pattani.

Malay Muslims have, since the annexation, complained of cultural, linguistic and economic marginalisation, giving rise to a separatist struggle in the 1970s.

As the insurgency showing little signs of abating, Pattama sees challenging days ahead. "People live in fear here and they need to be helped if a father or husband is arrested," she says. "It has become the women’s role to take the lead and get help."

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