Article 2014 The Year in Review

Insurgency, conflict and trauma - the tale of the Thai widows

A separatist Muslim conflict in Thailand's southern provinces has seen the government kill many of the rebels, leaving their widows with mental health problems, difficulty supporting their families and fear for the future.

The last time Rosida Da-oh saw her husband alive, he didn’t say where he was going. It was prayer time and she thought that he was going to the mosque. But he didn’t return home that night. The next time she heard about him was on the news the following day, when his name popped up as one of the alleged insurgents killed by the Thai military in the Kruze mosque, the oldest in Thailand, after an attack on a military base nearby. It was April 28 2004.

A few months before the Kruze incident, in January, an attack on a weapons depository marked the re-emergence of the Muslim separatist conflict in the southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and, to a lesser extent, Songkhla. Bordering Malaysia and coinciding with the old Sultanate of Patani, these provinces were annexed by Thailand in the early 20th century and their population of around two million people remains mainly Muslim and ethnic Malay. They also speak their own language, Jawi, a dialect of Malay with Arabic script. For decades, the government has tried to assimilate the population into Buddhist traditions and Thai language, a policy that has been seen by many as an oppression against local customs.

In the 1980s, a new turn in the government’s policy towards the south gave them more autonomy and notably reduced the violence. Nevertheless, Thaksin Shinawatra, who was sworn in as prime minister in early 2001, replaced this autonomy with a more centralised system and the discomfort revived. Ten years later, the conflict has claimed close to 6,000 lives and has left about 3,000 widows, according to government records.

Many of the widows, like Rosida, are struggling with the trauma.

“The violence has led the women to a very difficult position. They lost family members, husbands and children […] and became the ones who must assume all of the responsibilities in their households”, says Soraya Jamjuree, a professor who researches the impact of the conflict on women at Prince of Songkhla University in Pattani and founder of the Friends of Victimised Families (FVF), a local organisation that gives support to female victims of the conflict.

Their plight is even harder because the conservative Islamic society, which dominates the south, pushes women into the background. “Often women have no voice in the south. They are supposed to stay at home and take care of the family. Nothing else”, says Angkhana Neelapaijit, founder of the Justice for Peace Foundation, a human rights organiszation .“They face all the problems alone. They cannot share them with anyone else.”

A mother of five, Rosida has had to take on the burden of providing for her family including a 10-month old baby. “I had never worked before, I was just a housewife and was taking care of my children. When my husband passed away, I had to start working outside, like now, selling things”, she recalls.

Rosida got help from the local school where her husband used to teach Arabic grammar and she was allowed to build a house next to the centre where she now sells snacks and other sweet treats to children. In addition to the financial struggle that she had to bear, Rosida faced prejudice from the authorities because her husband was considered an insurgent. “When my husband was beaten and died, I realised we were discriminated against”, says Rosida. “They don’t see us as normal people, but as criminals. [For them] I’m just the wife of a criminal.”

The Kruze attack was one of the major incidents in the early months of the insurgency’s rebirth. A coordinated attack raided 10 military bases and police stations, one of them located close to the brick skeleton of the unfinished 425 year-old mosque. Immediately after the raid, the militants took refuge in the temple and soldiers launched an attack against the mosque with grenades and assault weapons. Thirty-two men were killed in the counter-attack. Authorities claimed that all of them were insurgents, but many families insist that their relatives just went to the mosque to pray. “I don’t know why my husband went there. The only thing I know is that there was no need to shoot. We could have convinced them to leave [the mosque]”, Rosida says.

Leaning on other women’s shoulders

Rosida is one of the women who received assistance from FVF, but her anger has not diminished with time. “It is still hard to forget, no matter how many years have passed. I feel deep hatred towards the soldiers and police. When I pass by the checkpoints, I curse them to die”, says Rosida.

“Women whose sons or husbands were detained by special legislation [or killed by authorities] experience serious mental effects”, explains Professor Jamjuree.“These women feel more frustrated by the unfairness their families received.”

The story is completely different for Pathinon To-che. Her husband, a bamboo tree seller, was also killed by soldiers during another raid on a military base in 2004. “In the beginning, I felt very depressed and I had to go to the hospital”, recalls Pathinon. The 60-year-old widow was haunted by the idea that her husband could be part of the insurgency. “I think he was tricked into participating in that attack because he was honest and not very talkative”, she explains.

Khok Pho, the district where Phatinon lives, is not an easy environment for recovery. With frequent attacks and killings occurring, Khok Pho is one of the most violent districts in the province of Pattani and is also considered by the authorities as one of the most important nests for the insurgency. “The military used to visit us often to see if we had insurgency connections”, says Pathinon. “I was really angry at them.”

Pathinon got her smile back thanks to the religious teachings and the help of Khanmueng Chamnankit, 48, one of FVF’s volunteers.

Khanmueng, whose husband and son were detained for two months without charge, herself suffered the trauma of the conflict. “I lost 10 kilos in one month when that happened. I had to fight a lot because everyone turned their backs on us.” She has not received any specific mental trauma training and has just relied on her own experiences to help other women. “We cannot get any specialist assistance [for mental health] here in the south. So we just help each other, talking and sharing”, she says.

A call for better mental health assistance

The government provides financial assistance for the victims, but activists and academics are now calling for better mental health services for the women in the deep south. “I think the government should not only give financial support, but should also help women with their mental health rehabilitation. The government must build ties between the widows that allow the women to look after and empower each other”, says Kanlaya Daraha, a researcher at the Prince of Songkhla University.

For many widows, the fear of becoming a target adds to the sadness over the loss of their husbands. “Before, women were hardly ever the [target] of attacks. However, recently, we can see that women are being shot dead and bombed”, says Soraja Jamjuree. In the last 10 years, 431 women have been killed by the insurgents or the military, according to Deep South Watch, an NGO that monitors the conflict.

Saawalak Chaisuwan, a Buddhist teacher, lives with this fear. Her husband, the principal of a rural school, was killed by the insurgents in 2006. “Because he unexpectedly passed away, I felt lost”, the teacher recalls. Saawalak was living alone when her husband died because their two children were studying in other cities and she didn’t have any other relatives alive. “I was so confused, I had no idea how to move forward.”

She also feared for her own life. Teachers working for state-run centres are one of the main targets of the separatist movement, especially in rural areas. She immediately moved to the safer city of Pattani, but she still takes precautions when she is out of the house. “I try to avoid public places like the night market. I go out only when necessary. If I have to buy food, I leave my house just to buy it and I come right back”, she explains.

The peace negotiations that the government and insurgents held for the first time in February 2013 gave respite to “soft targets”, but talks have stalled and the attacks against civilians have begun again. The latest killing of a female teacher occurred on 16 October 2014 in Khok Pho, the district where Phathinon lives. The military government that seized power in a coup last May after months of political turmoil has ordered officials in the southern region to tighten security measures after the latest violent attacks and the new Prime Minister General, Prayuth Chan-ocha, has vowed to bring peace to the deep south before the end of 2015.

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