Aiming for hearts and minds … female rangers train at their base in Yala province in southern Thailand. The rangers are being employed against increasing numbers of female protesters.
Photo: AP/Apichart Weerawong
Both sides are employing new tactics in the civil unrest, writes Connie Levett in Saiburi,Thailand.
SIRIPAN USAPROM, 23, was an admin clerk three months ago. Now she is a tactical weapon in southern Thailand’s increasingly savage civil unrest – the fresh face of the military-appointed Government’s maligned “soft” approach on the south.
Combining a sawn-down M16 and combat fatigues with eye make-up and pencilled eyebrows, Siripan is one of 26 members of a women’s ranger troop. She recalls their first day on the job in the Rangae red zone, one of the south’s most volatile districts. “We went into the village and there was a voice from the loudspeaker calling children, women and elderly people. Protesting women came to us and asked why we were there. ‘This is not Thailand, this is Malaysia,’ they [said].”
Siripan said the women told her troop to go away. They asked which of them were Muslim, then told them, “You should quit and get another job”.
A Muslim ranger, Natsryia Yarimor, 25, said her family had no objection to her work. “I am not afraid of being called a traitor, because it’s not a religious war, most of them misunderstand,” she said.
But the warning should not be taken lightly. In two bloody incidents in the region, two marines and two teachers were taken hostage by villagers, and three of the four were beaten to death.
Thailand is an overwhelmingly Buddhist country, but in the deep south the majority of people are Muslim. They speak a different language, Malayu or Yawi, and feel a strong sense of injustice at their place in the Thai hierarchy.
The insurgency, seeking better rights for Muslims, has sputtered and flared for decades, but observers are worried by two new trends — the increasingly random, savage nature of the attacks and the emerging role women are playing in the struggle.
For the first time, women are on the front line, planting bombs, carrying out drive-by shootings and staging large demonstrations that paralyse Thai authorities because soldiers do not dare touch Muslim women for fear of breaking religious taboos and further inflaming the situation.
So Siripan and 130 fellow female rangers have been recruited in response. They are part of the Government’s hearts-and-minds campaign as it works for reconciliation with southern Thai Muslims. As well as the use of female rangers, there have been air drops of pamphlets warning that “insurgents want to create division between religions, they want Thai brothers to kill each other”.
Thai authorities have shown restraint in the face of recent brutal attacks aimed at derailing the process in which monks have been beheaded and teachers shot and set alight. Nine Buddhists, including three women and a girl, travelling by mini-van were stopped and executed at close range this month, fuelling anger in Bangkok at the Government’s softly, softly approach, which was introduced after the September 19 coup to overthrow the caretaker prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra.
Muslims have also been targets: a bomb was thrown at a mosque in Yala, and two Muslim students were shot in their sleeping quarters in apparent retaliatory attacks. In spite of the publicity given to atrocities against Buddhists, there have been more Muslim casualties among the 2000 deaths since the violence reignited in 2004.
“There is more brutal, severe violence happening. It’s never been like this before. It has become more random,” said Srisompob Jitpiromsri, a political scientist at Prince of Songkla University, in the southern province of Pattani.
Dr Srisompob, who has set up a database to track the violence, cited the cases of a Muslim woman who walked into a grocery store and shot the owner, and of women who committed a drive-by shooting at a teashop.
“But the outstanding phenomenon is the movement of women in demonstrations,” he said. “There are almost 20 incidents of demonstrations organised by women in black. It happens after someone is arrested, then a group of women demonstrate.”
The army also accuses women, whom they could not search until they recruited the female rangers, of transporting weapons through roadblocks.
The most recent demonstration of female power came after two students were killed at a pondok (Islamic school) inside their bamboo sleeping shacks, at Saba Yoi, in Songkla province, last Saturday.
The villagers suspected the involvement of the Government and for the next two days, several hundred women and children kept authorities from inspecting the crime scene. The stand-off was tense and gunshots were fired.
Suai Bah, 30, one of the women who protested, said they were angry about being classified a red zone, which means an area with high insurgent activity. They were fearful the authorities would plant incriminating evidence at the site, Suai said. Initial news reports said police claimed the students died when a bomb they were making exploded. The bamboo huts are peppered with gunshots.
“After the attack a group of women gathered – several hundred – and we stopped the Government authorities from entering the pondok,” Suai said. “We heard the army said they would close any pondok with links to the insurgency.”
The army does not know how many women are involved in the insurgency but estimates, somewhat arbitrarily, that 1 per cent of the 1.7 million southern population is involved. Of that 17,000, it claims 2000 are operational and the other 15,000 provide backup.
The army’s spokesman in the south, Colonel Acra Tiproch, said: “They have just appeared recently, we didn’t see this last year.”
The mobs of women have been effective, Colonel Acra said.
“On February 18, the army took a man for questioning. Protesters came to the [army] camp and five or six women would not leave. They surrounded the soldier and tried to draw him into the crowd.”
Because the soldier did not want to touch the Muslim women, the army had to bring in female rangers to pull the women away, he said. “They wanted to spark violence.”
The female rangers have provided an effective non-violent response to the mobilisation of women in protests.
Siripan and her colleagues have just returned to their home base at Saiburi, in Pattani, after a month in Rangae, where they worked in the villages, on roadblocks, in crowd control and offering basic nursing care.
The rangers said that when they first arrived in the villages, the women would not talk to them and thought they were there to arrest their husbands. But after two weeks the female villagers began to trust them enough to start telling them their problems.
The rangers – all single and aged between 18 and 29 – are local and are aware they are a target for the insurgents.
“This job pays more [than my admin job] but this is from my heart,” said Siripan. “I am a part of helping people in the three provinces.”
(Source: SMH, 23/3/03)