Women's groups in Thailand's deep south provinces have never been included in peace talks, despite being affected by the conflict, directly and indirectly. Reflecting on the role of women in peacebuilding in conjunction with International Women’s Day on March 8, Anna Christi Suwardi of Mae Fah Luang University reckons that giving voice to women in the negotiations to resolve the conflict in the region could enhance the chances of success.
Woman in power, empowering women for peace: Pateemoh Sadeeyamu, the first female Muslim governor of Pattani province in southern Thailand (Credit: Patimah Sadeeyamu on Facebook)
Decades of armed conflict and insurgency still plague the lives of people in Thailand’s southernmost regions. Various attempts at peace talks over the years have all failed. One recent positive development was the appointment in November 2022 of the first female Muslim governor in Pattani province. Pateemoh Sadeeyamu, 57, previously served as the director of the Southern Border Provinces Administrative Centre (SBPAC). Although women were absent from formal peace negotiations, observers believe having her as the head of a provincial government will boost the hopes and confidence of women’s groups in advancing their gender equality activism and peace advocacy. Pateemoh seems the ideal catalyst for conflict resolution. Her leadership style is to bridge divides. She embraces both Muslim and Buddhist communities, young people and seniors, and political and non-political agendas.
Southern Thai Muslims, whose ethnicity, culture and language differ from the Buddhist majority, believe they are treated as second-class citizens. Their struggle has received much sympathy among citizens in Muslim-majority neighbor Malaysia, which has repeated its commitment to resolving the conflict to the north that has claimed over 7,300 lives since the insurgency broke out in 2004. Putrajaya has appointed a new chief facilitator and even hosted and facilitated peace talks between the separatist groups and the Thai government. Since 2013, the Thai government and Malay-Muslim insurgent groups such as MARA Patani and Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani have met to discuss peace negotiations but little progress has been made. Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim recently visited Thailand, offering to help the country solve the insurgency problem and warning against the use of violence to end the conflict.
Living in a heavily Malay-Muslim region, women in the deep south of Thailand find it hard to take part in building peace because of the patriarchal culture and system. Since the escalation of violence in 2004, women’s groups in the three border provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat have been trying to engage in peacebuilding initiatives. Their roles have grown and changed over time.
Despite a strong spirit of identity solidarity (religion and ethnicity), Islamic and Malay cultures have invisibly combined to smother women’s roles in public life. Male leaders tend to define and impose discipline on women in domestic settings. Despite this, Muslim clerics have expressed their support for women's empowerment initiatives. Most of those projects have focused on small-scale entrepreneurial skills and religious and family-based informal education. Fewer opportunities have opened for women to become leaders, especially around the decision-making needed for conflict resolution. The lack of women negotiators has become an issue.
The military often gets in the way of women who work for peace. With the mistreatment that is a feature of martial law, the most common accusation levelled at activists including women is that they are part of the insurgency and are against the government. This instils fear in women, trapping them because they are reluctant to increase their public engagement in the pursuit of peace.
Despite those challenges, women’s organizations keep pursuing their agendas. Some are focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment, children's and widowers' protection, or the safeguarding and defense of legal and human rights. Women’s groups are also at the forefront of promoting harmony and coexistence between the Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist communities.
One of the most remarkable achievements was the joint call for a "safe space" policy by Muslim and Buddhist women's groups. Under a consolidated movement, the Peace Agenda of Women successfully put forward policy recommendations for conflict resolution in 2015. This movement demonstrated that cross-cultural peace initiatives can be carried out in Thailand's deep south despite existing prejudice between the two religious groups.
Peace negotiators in Thailand’s deep south could learn from the peace process in Mindanao, the second largest island in the Philippines, which is in the southern part of the country and has a population of which about a quarter are Muslim. The peacemaking process between the government and Muslim insurgents included women at the decision-making level. This remarkable case highlighted the Philippines as Southeast Asia’s best example of successful implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (adopted in 2000) on women, peace and security agendas. When women are part of the negotiations, they will ensure that any peace agreement is fair and takes into account the needs of both men and women.
Several strategies for increasing women's participation in the formal peace process are possible. They need to focus on the needs of both sides and cover issues ranging from support and assistance from men to women's increased capabilities. Consolidation among women’s groups is a way for women to unify their voices and aspirations for the peace process. Women’s unique potential to be the bridging connectors between the security sector and communities also needs to be tapped. At the same time, women need to improve their communications and negotiating skills.
These strategies can only be implemented if comprehensive, open approaches are possible. The negotiating process should not be limited to the government and insurgent groups but allow for a nonpartisan party with groups representing people in general (including civil society organizations and women’s groups) present. This nonpartisan party should be agnostic and not obligated to support any side of the conflict. The structure of peace negotiations should be open and inclusive, gender balanced, and accommodate the use by participants of Thai, Malay or English. This would allow women to participate freely and get their voices heard.
The involvement of women in the peace process in Thailand’s deep south might still be limited, but with a key figure in the region a woman and growing openness to allowing women to be at the negotiating table and awareness of the benefits that might bring, there is hope that more inclusive peace talks could yield positive results.
This article is published under Creative Commons with 360info.
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Anna Christi Suwardi
Mae Fah Luang University