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.
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.
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.
Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute