This article has been republished for International Women’s Day 2023. It was first published on 8 March 2023. Originally published under Creative Commons by 360info.org
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.
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.
However, one positive development was the appointment 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 local government will boost women’s groups’ hope and confidence in advancing their gender equality activism and peace advocacy. Her leadership style is about bridging divides between communities; 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 received the sympathy of many Malaysians, due to Malaysia’s predominantly Muslim population.
Malaysia remains committed to resolving the conflict that has claimed over 7,300 lives since the insurgency broke out in 2004. It 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 like MARA Patani and Barisan Revolusi Nasional Melayu Patani have met to discuss peace negotiations but little progress has been made. Last month, Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, visited Thailand to help the country solve the insurgency and urged 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 in smothering women’s roles in public life. Male leaders tend to define and discipline women’s roles in domestic settings. Despite this, Muslim clerics have expressed their support for women’s empowerment initiatives in recent times.
Most of those projects were related to small-scale entrepreneurial skills and religious and family-based informal education. In contrast, fewer opportunities have opened for women to become leaders, especially around peace-related decision-making. This 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 can accompany martial law, the most common accusation levelled at activists including women is that they are part of the insurgents 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 organisations keep pursuing their agendas. Some are focused on gender equality and women’s empowerment, children’s and widowers’ protection, or legal and human rights protection. Women’s groups are also at the forefront to promote harmony and coexistence between Malay Muslim and Thai Buddhist communities.
One of the most remarkable achievements was the call for a “safe space” policy by Muslim and Buddhist women’s groups. Under a consolidated movement, the Peace Agenda of Women, successfully transformed this movement into policy recommendations sent to the peace table 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 Philippines that included women at the decision-making level. This remarkable case of the Mindanao peace process set the Philippines as Southeast Asia’s best example of successful implementation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on women, peace, and security agendas. When women are part of the negotiations, they will ensure that the 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. It focuses on both sides, from receiving support and assistance from men to women’s increased capabilities. Consolidation among women’s groups is a potential resource for women to unify their voices and aspirations toward the peace process. Women’s unique potential to be the bridging connectors between the security sector and communities also needs to be well-tapped. At the same time, women need to improve their communication and negotiation skills.
These strategies can only be implemented if comprehensive approaches are available. The negotiating parties should not be limited to the government and insurgent groups, but allow for a nonpartisan party where groups representing people in general (including civil society organisations and women’s groups) could present. This nonpartisan party is agnostic and not obligated to support either parties. The structure of peace negotiations should be open and inclusive, including gender balance and elevating the language barrier between the use of Thai, Malay, and English. As such, it will allow women to freely voice their participation.
Women’s involvement in Thailand’s deep south peace process might still be overshadowed, but clearly, there is hope for more inclusive peace negotiations by allowing women to be involved at the table.