Since the Bombs… My Life Has Changed
June 24, 2015
For the last 11 years, Thailand’s southern border provinces of Yala, Narathiwat, and Pattani and neighboring districts of Songkhla – the Deep South – have been torn by a subnational conflict in which bomb attacks, assassinations, and other acts of violence have claimed over 6,400 lives and injured more than 11,500 people. The conflict spans the Thai-Malay border region, where most are Malay-Muslim – a local majority that is a small minority in predominantly Buddhist Thailand. While the conflict is rooted in unresolved Malay-Muslim grievances with the Thai state, both the Malay-Muslim and Thai-Buddhist communities have suffered immeasurably from the violence, as attacks have spread from “hard targets” such as police stations and military personnel to include indiscriminate bombings of markets, schools, hospitals, and other public places, inflicting severe casualties on civilians.
On the evening of May 24, 2014, a series of bomb attacks on convenience stores, petrol stations, public utility installations, and busy sidewalks in the town of Pattani killed three people, injured more than 60, and disrupted the supply of electricity and water for two days. The Pattani bombings had a profound impact on both communities, but they also propelled a group of courageous women to take action.
In August 2014, the Hearty Support Group, or Duayjai Group as it is locally known, launched a 10-month project to document the impact of bombings in the Deep South, with financial support from The Asia Foundation and technical support from the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies of Siem Riep, Cambodia. Established by two women in 2010, the Duayjai Group supports torture victims and their families, investigates access to justice for families of the detained, and campaigns for the rights of children at risk of violence in the Deep South. “When we saw the dead and injured from the bombings, mostly women and children, we decided we had had enough,” said Director Anchana Heemmina of the Duayjai Group. “We had to do something to stop the violence against civilians, and the one thing we could do was ensure that the voices of victims would be heard.”
The group began to explore how the trauma of the bombings had changed people’s lives, collecting stories from victims and families. What they discovered is that many survivors said they were now frightened by loud noises of any kind. They avoided public places, missing wedding ceremonies and other social and cultural activities that are so important to the Malay-Muslim and Thai-Buddhist communities. Some said they were afraid to travel far from home or to pass the sites of past bombings. Many mothers reported that trauma and loss had turned their children unruly and aggressive. The most profoundly affected, both psychologically and economically, were survivors and their families who lost their livelihoods while they convalesced or cared for others.
The Duayjai Group has now brought these stories together in a book, Since The Bombs…My Life Has Changed, which they unveiled to the public on June 6. The book launch drew 400 people, including survivors and family members, civil society organizations, community leaders, students, and the media. In a measure of the broad support for the project, the event was also attended by senior officials of the government, the army, and the Royal Thai Police, whose Commissioner of the Southern Border Provinces Police Operation Center addressed the event.
The stories collected in Since the Bombs make a powerful argument for the shared suffering, and shared humanity, of victims and survivors on both sides of the decade-long conflict. A panel discussion at the book launch focused on the stories of three individuals whose lives were shaken by the Pattani bombings – the mothers of a five-year-old Muslim victim and an 18-year-old Buddhist victim, and the son of a 47-year-old single mother of three children who died in the bombings. Co-editor Arida Awaekachi said that, at first, she had viewed the collected accounts as the personal experiences of 27 individuals and families affected by the bombings, but gradually she understood that the stories represented the lives and experiences of the broader population of the Deep South, who collectively face an environment of violence and insecurity, no matter who they are or what their class, ethnic origins, or beliefs.
The five Malay-Muslim women who comprise the project staff of the Duayjai Group have been inspired to start an inter-faith dialogue. “To me, it is very easy to talk to Muslim people,” said Sugriya Baheh, one of the writers. “My concern was that Buddhist victims would not want to talk to me. But when I visited their homes, both Muslims and Buddhists were willing to tell me their stories.”
“The book teaches us that Buddhist victims are no different from Muslim victims,” said Muhummad Ayup Pathan, a senior journalist with Deep South Watch, who reminded participants that southern Thailand shares elements with other conflict environments. “I’d like to see Duayjai Group translate these stories into many languages. “People learn through stories; we have to cry in many languages.”
The Asia Foundation has supported the Duayjai Group project as part of a “victims’ empowerment” approach to resolving the armed conflict in the south, helping victims make the transition from passive sufferers of violence to active advocates for an end to violence against civilians and better support for victims and their families.
“They didn’t believe me at first when I told them we would publish their stories,” said Subaida Deng, Assistant Director of Duayjai. “Now I see their smiles. They will not feel abandoned anymore. They have the book in their hands and they are invited to witness what their stories can tell the country.”
Yupa Phusahas is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Thailand. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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