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Woman Soldier Child woman in Thailand

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Thailand: Women for Peace
Offering solace to victims of conflict
 

 

Aaron Goodman

Aaron Goodman is a video journalist who specializes in reporting about international humanitarian issues. Goodman's previous story for FRONTLINE/World reported on those affected by the decade-long civil war in Nepal. He has also covered stories from Sri Lanka for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. He currently lives in Bangkok where he is filming a series of documentaries about Asia.

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Length: 11:19

The conflict in Southern Thailand may be one of the least known in the world. But news of shootings and bombings by Muslim insurgents fighting government forces makes the headlines virtually every day here. For the last three years, Muslim militants have been fighting to create a separate state in the region and more than 2,000 people have been killed.

At first, militants targeted police stations and army posts. But in more recent attacks, dozens of teachers have been killed and more than 100 schools burned. Insurgents have also killed Buddhist monks, and in some of the worst hit areas, the Thai government has been arming civilians for their own protection.

I recently traveled to the south to find out what's being done to stop the violence. Unlike many conflicts, virtually all relief organizations have stayed away because of the risks. The Thai government has been battling the insurgents militarily but has offered little humanitarian aid to civilians.

I met Soraya Jamjuree, a lecturer at Prince Songkhla University in the southern province of Pattani. She leads a team of Muslim university students, who travel to remote villages across the south to offer support to those caught up in the violence. Her group is called Friends of Victimized Families, and it receives support from the Canadian government. Many families she visits have lost husbands, brothers and sons to the violence, and it's the women and children left behind that Soraya's group tries to help.

While traveling with her to report this story, I witnessed the worst coordinated attack in the history of the conflict. One evening last February, militants set off close to 30 bombs in restaurants, karaoke bars and gas stations, killing six people and wounding more than 60.

Soraya Jamjuree

Soraya Jamjuree

When the attacks started, Soraya and her group had stopped to pray at Pattani's Central Mosque. I stood outside and watched two massive blasts light up the sky. Among the targets, militants had bombed the main power station, and the city was plunged into darkness. People fled the mosque in panic and began to race home.

The Roots of the Conflict
Thailand's deep south has the look and feel of a very different country. People here share closer ties with neighboring Malaysia -- everything from Malay food and architecture to clothing and, of course, religion. More than 80 percent of Thailand's three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat are Muslim. Many who live here say they are discriminated against by the Buddhist central government in Bangkok.

For hundreds of years, the region had been an independent kingdom, but Thailand took direct control of the area in 1902. Since then, a separatist struggle has simmered. In the 1960s, insurgent violence soared, but within 10 years, amnesty deals ended the bloodshed. Bangkok promised to improve ties with the south. But many feel little has changed.

The local language -- a Malay dialect called Yawi -- is barred from government offices and banned from being taught in public schools, where many Muslim children have been forced to bow to statues of the Buddha. In addition, the economic boom that transformed Bangkok into a modern city has not spread to the south.

In 2004, Muslim militants from at least four known rebel groups reignited the separatist cause. While not all the groups share the same goals, they share a common agenda of independence from Thailand. To date, none has claimed responsibility for the attacks and the authorities admit they know little about how the militants operate. They also cannot claim much success in stopping the violence.

Earlier this year, Thailand's defense minister, General Boonrawd Somtas told the government that there are as many as 10,000 fighters ready to take up the militant cause. With 30,000 soldiers and police dispatched to the region, Somtas admitted: "We do not know them. As long as they mingle with ordinary people, it's difficult to tell them apart."

Many analysts believe the insurgency remains an internal conflict, but some claim that Muslim teachers trained in Pakistan and the Middle East have imported a radical form of Islam into Thailand.

The conflict may have already spread to Bangkok. Last December, nine bombs exploded across the city, killing three people and wounding nearly 30. Experts later claimed the bombs were the same type as those used by militants in the south, although officials have never pointed the finger directly at southern insurgents. Observers now warn that unless Bangkok finds a quick way to end the crisis peacefully, groups such as al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah will take hold in the country, as they have done in other parts of Southeast Asia.

Before I left the south, I asked Soraya how she thought her work with both Muslim and Buddhist victims of the violence could help change the situation in the region.

"When violence happens, maybe the victim's family wants to take revenge if they know who killed their husband or their son," she told me. "I think we can reduce their pain, reduce their sadness and stop them from taking revenge. If we have success in this way, maybe we can stop the violence. Not now, but in the future."

-- Aaron Goodman

REACTIONS

A.R. - Allen, TX
This story is very insightful. I had no idea that these conflicts were taking place in areas such as Thailand, much less the extent of damage these conflicts inflicted. Although I am deeply sorry for those who have suffered, I am overwhelmingly moved by the actions of these women. They have set themselves apart from the crowd by not only picking up the pieces of their lives, but by also helping mothers and children, who have lost husbands, fathers, and brothers, to do the same. I believe that in continuing to help families recover, these women are leading the way to a united country and a peaceful future.

Qiujing Wong - Auckland, New Zealand
Aaron, well done. And thank you for shining the light on the positive work of the women. I look forward to seeing more of your work again soon.

(anonymous)
Thank you for shedding light on this emerging conflict. We often hear about the government turmoil in Thailand, but rarely about the agony people face every day. Hopefully more work such as this will emerge and bring the US and UN's attention, so we can prevent another safe haven for radical islam - but time seems to be running out and our attention is quite thin.

erica - vancouver, BC
I am currently in a class called 'gender in armed conflict'. I came across this conflict about two weeks ago and was intrigued to learn how gender played a role in all of this. I had found nothing except for one piece by Aljazeera English on female recruits into the Thai Royal Army, but nothing else about gender specifically. I believe gender plays an extremely important role in any conflict or situation and have been completely shocked by the lack of information out there about it. Thank you for this article.

Nasrat Amanullah - Kabul, Afghanistan
Please do stay in touch

Bangkok, Bangkok
This 'reporter' is a blatant liar. I doubt he has ever been to Thailand let alone the Southern provinces.
But sadly, that is the way things are nowadays. Make the news up as you go along and make sure it fits with Western objectives, that will ensure publication somewhere. And ensure it is sensational enough to get you a little publicity...... sigh!

(anonymous)
You report that: "...clearly, many Muslims in this region would like autonomy or becoming a separate state."Religious zeal is high with Muslims, no doubt. It seems that some Muslims lash out when they don't agree with their government for religious reasons; so they fight to become a nation under Allah. Why don't the moderate Muslims do more?Remember, almost every major conflict going on in the world today involves Muslims. Coincidence? Islam is supposed to be a religion of peace and yet the religion was spread with conquest and the sword (with a few rare exceptions).Yes, yes, Christianity and other religions are certainly not exempt from the above statement as well, but you just have to wonder when you research today's events.

Eli - Ottawa, ON
Thanks to reporters like Aaron, we can keep shinning light into the darkness that plagues our world!

(anonymous)
This is not some thing new where ever Muslims have settled. Aaron says, "For hundreds of years , the region had been an independent Kingdom, but Thailand took direct control of the area in 1902. Since then a separatist struggle has simmered" Which Kingdom are we talking about? 80% of the Thailand's 3 southern provinces are Muslim dominated , so then does it mean they would want to separate from Thailand? Tell me one Country where there is NO discrimination? The whole of the Far East was once Buddhist, until Muslims got there as traders. Read a book by V.S.Naipaul called "Beyond Belief." Afghanistan was also a Buddhist country before being conquered by Muslims in the name of Islam.

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
The Muslim rebels in southern Thailand are a murky lot. They don't issue press releases. They have killed more Muslims than Buddhists. Hard to know exactly what they want. But clearly, many Muslims in this region would like autonomy or becoming a separate state.

Bangkok, Thailand
When will we be finished with these terrible things?

(anonymous)
Nice work! Thank you.

M.B. - Honolulu, HI
Sounds very familiar to the incidents that occurred before Pakistan became independent of India.

Philip Grant - Boston, Ma
Nice work! Thank you.

Eric Notaro - East Nassau, New York
I was amazed by this story. There is absolutely no coverage of this at all in the US media. I am horrified to learn of this conflict but at the same time, I am inspired by the people working to help the victims. If only more people could help victims of such situations the same way. People who are forced to bear witness to such acts need more than just medical aid, the need to be calmed and consoled so they do not use their resentment to perpetuate a vicious cycle.