Sunday, September 7, 2014

Iron Flowers of The Thai Deep South: The Story of Female Paramilitaries and Identity Conflict

               photo: Female Paramilitaries 43rd Ranger Battalion Facebook fanpage

In light of the violent political situation in Thailand’s troubled South, paramilitary troops have been engaged to patrol the heavily militarized three border provinces, conducting search and arrest missions in villages, manning checkpoints, and carrying out a host of other ad-hoc activities.

While the male paramilitary troops (Thahan Phran Chai) have earned a notorious reputation for themselves, little is known about female paramilitary troops in the area who are given the duty of mediation with local villagers, especially Muslim women.

Thailand’s troubled South, consisting of the three southern border provinces -- Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, is home to a predominantly Muslim population. Over the past ten years, the region has been plagued by incessant violence fuelled by deep distrust between the Muslim locals and the military. Since the annexation of Patani to Siam in 1902, the region has been plagued with secessionist movements.

Between the 1940s and 1980s, insurgents staged a number of uprisings in retaliation against a forced assimilation policy pursued by the governments of the time. By the late 1990s, the separatist movement had died down. However the peace did not last long. When Thaksin Shinawatra became Prime Minister in 2001, violence again erupted. According to Joseph Liow, an expert on Southeast Asian Muslim politics, the resurgence of conflict is a consequence of Thaksin’s “policy missteps, one after another.”

Negotiation with insurgent groups has proved difficult. Due to the fluid nature of these groups, they often maintain a silence about attacks and have rarely made specific demands. This makes it difficult for the Thai state to engage in dialogue with groups involved in the insurgency.

The male paramilitary troops are constantly armed and are notorious among the locals for being responsible for ‘dirty tasks’ that the army refuses to be associated with. These tasks range from enforced disappearances to extrajudicial killings. In comparison, the female paramilitaries are not armed and assume support operations. They are deployed in front line operations only if it involves women and children. Otherwise their jobs are mainly restricted to paperwork and occasionally serving rations to commanders and visitors to the camp.

“As women, we are able to explain patiently and communicate clearly with the villagers. This is important as we need to build good relations with the local people,” said Lieutenant Noi*, a female paramilitary, deployed at Inkayut Military Camp in Pattani Province. The female presence is important to quell any form of distrust the villagers may have towards the soldiers, she added.

In total, there are approximately 807 female paramilitary troops in Thailand and Muslim women make up around 2/5 of them.

The duties of a female paramilitary vary from day to day. On most days, they get up at 5.30 am for morning exercise, followed by cleaning the area and then deployment. The nature of their job differs according to the unit where the women are posted. In general, the jobs of female paramilitaries range from manning checkpoints, search and arrest missions and peacekeeping during demonstrations to conducting lessons in villages, paperwork and even maintaining social media.

“The role of a female paramilitary soldier is not static and always changing. They help out in strategic operations, social media management and civilian work. One thing for sure, they are never involved in combat but are a good help in negotiations before the arrest of suspects in local areas” Colonel Mektrai from 43rd Ranger Battalion.

To be a female paramilitary, one has to be single, between the ages of 18-30 and have completed at least Grade 10. They are required to be physically fit to undergo a 45-day training programme to learn basic soldiering skills. The training programme is relatively short, compared to the military in other parts of the world. Additionally, with a lack formal assessment upon the completion of training, it is difficult to ascertain the standards and proficiency of the female paramilitary troops.

According to the commanders of the 43rd Ranger Battalion, Muslim female paramilitary troops are a valuable asset to the force as they are able to communicate with villagers in the local language and are able to connect well with the locals based on their shared ethnicity.

By deploying these women in strategic operations, the military is attempting to co-opt local support and create a sense of familiarity amongst the local people towards these female Muslim paramilitaries.

Assessing the success of female paramilitary troops

Suri*, a 20-year-old female paramilitary from Narathiwat Province says that her fluency in the local language has helped her connect with the villagers while on duty. “They ask me for my name and ask if I am a Muslim. I tell them that I am and they are friendly to me,” she added.

However, the sentiments on the ground seem to vary to a large degree. June*, a 21-year-old undergraduate from Prince of Songkhla University (PSU), told Prachatai that she dislikes uniformed personnel, whether they are male or female. “I had a short interaction with [a female paramilitary] during an anti-drug workshop and I was really afraid of them. The mention of ‘soldiers’ is just intimidating!” she said.

Although Suri said that her mediation role has been successful, the idea of being a paramilitary is still not welcomed in her hometown.

Fresh out of school, Suri followed her sister’s footsteps and applied to be part of the paramilitary force. “My parents are happy and proud that I am working as a female paramilitary” she chirped. Suri gets about 10,000 baht a month as a female paramilitary. This is a lot more than the measly 300 baht per day salary that 10th grade school leavers are getting elsewhere in the country.

Although her family is glad that she has found a job that she likes, Suri lets on that the rest of her village does not know what she does for a living. “I do not tell my neighbours about my job as a female paramilitary. It is too dangerous. We don’t know who is living in the village and if word gets around about my job, I could get into trouble,” she said.

To account for her absence from her hometown, Suri and her family tell their neighbours that she is pursuing further education in another province. She said, “Some villagers have a bad impression of soldiers and people from the military. For my safety, I tell my neighbours that I am studying in another province.”

It is no surprise that Suri has to hide her identity as a female paramilitary from her wider social circle. Paramilitary troops in general have earned a notorious reputation in the country’s Deep South. Villagers do not have a good impression of paramilitary troops as they are known to be rude and unreasonable.

What makes matters more complicated is the fact that Suri and her family are Muslim. According to Assistant Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a number of Muslim female paramilitary troopers have been found dead, supposedly targeted and murdered by Muslim insurgents for their divided allegiance and for being a “spy” for the military. This gives Suri all the more reason to conceal her identity as a female paramilitary.

Islamic culture yet to be wholly embraced?

Apart from their role as mediators, the military has appointed female paramilitaries as “representatives of the nation’s female population”. However in a region where Muslim identity is not fully embraced by the Thai state, the wearing of the headscarf continues to be prohibited while wearing paramilitary uniform.

According to June, who said she dislikes female paramilitary troops, what was even more uncomfortable was the female paramilitary troops’ advocacy of equality among men and women during military-held workshop.

As June is a relatively conservative Muslim, she did not agree with the way the female paramilitary troops were trying to foster a spirit of equality among men and women during the workshop. June said, “Men and women have different roles (in Islam) and to speak about equality is to ignore fundamental differences”.

Female Muslim students from Prince of Songkhla University during prayer time

Clearly, there exists a clash of values. When asked about the idea of gender equality between female paramilitaries and their male counterparts, Lieutenant Noi said that discrimination does not exist. “We support their operations and are treated equally,” she added. Female paramilitary troops have embraced the idea of a strong modern woman which sits uncomfortably with the relatively conservative Muslim population of the South.

Similarly, Nurisan Doror from the Deep South Woman Association for Peace, an NGO based in Yala, said that it is impossible for female paramilitary troops to represent ALL women. “It is not possible; they (female paramilitary troops) are not religious. Also, they have to be role models first, they have yet to gain acceptance from locals,” she said.

According to Nurisan, in order for female paramilitary troops to represent local women, they have to be role models in the way they practice Islam. Given that these female troops do not wear the hijab and possess differing views on the role of women, locals have problems identifying with them.

This reflects a deep misunderstanding between the military and the people in the South.

Women’s role in the South revisited

Although female paramilitary troops and the local population have different ideas on the role of women, we are beginning to notice a resurgent role of women in peace-building efforts in the South.

Angkhana Neelapaijit, chairperson of the Justice for Peace Foundation which has worked with families of the victims of enforced disappearance in the Deep South, supports the idea of young women taking up jobs as female paramilitary troops, although she cannot help but cast doubt on the short training process. She said that women have to step up to assume an active role in peace-building and what is important is that women do not regress into a passive role during conflict.

The Justice for Peace Foundation specializes on issues related to enforced disappearances in the South and Angkhana has taken on additional projects to work with women whose families have gone missing due to the conflict. Angkhana, a nurse by profession, used to be a normal Muslim housewife. But after her husband, Somchai Neelapaijit, a human rights lawyer, was disappeared in 2004, she stepped up to become an activist, fighting for justice for her husband and other victims of enforced disappearance.

Gone are the days in which women are confined solely to the kitchen. Since the resurgence of the Southern conflict, women have found themselves going out to work and bringing in the money to support their families. The escalation of violence in recent years has led to many households losing a male family member through death or enforced disappearance.

When this happens, the women in the family are forced to step up, and assume leadership positions within the household. They become responsible for putting food on the table and bringing up their children single-handedly.

According to Angkhana, many men avoid going out to work during the conflict because they say that they are afraid of being targeted. “When this happens, the women go out to work, and are the sole breadwinners during times of conflict,” said Angkhana.

“If you go to fishing areas, you will see women working, harvesting and bringing in the fish. They work from 2 am all the way to noon time. It is hard work and they earn only around 200 baht a day,” Angkhana added.

Roles have been reversed. There is indeed hope for women’s empowerment.

Rosa Emilia Salamanca, Executive Director of Corporacion de Investigacion y Accion Social y Economica (CIASE) in Colombia, sums up the role of women in conflict areas aptly: “Women are so successful in peace because they support societies during the conflict. Every day women are trying to build peace by trying to rebuild their society from what is destroyed. I think women are so successful because they support society in the worse scenarios you can imagine.”

*Names have been changed to protect the privacy and anonymity of interviewees.


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