From victims to victors
Recently, I participated in an insightful online conversation with southern Thailand women and men peace advocates together with some leaders of Mindanao-based women’s civil society organizations. Some participants were from the Prince of Songkla University based in Muang, Pattani, southern Thailand. I have worked with some southern Thai women in a collaborative assessment project on the peace processes in Indonesia (Aceh), southern Thailand and southern Philippines (the Government of the Philippines-Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace negotiations). The virtual conversation was co-organized by the Philippine office of the Nonviolent Peace Force in partnership with the network of civic women in southern Thailand.
One of the speakers from the Philippines is a former member of the Philippine government peace panel that negotiated with the MILF, Madame Yasmin Busran-Lao. She discussed at length several legal and policy frameworks that can be considered part of the enabling environment for the push for women to play more central decision-making roles in peace processes and in the political arena. For my part, I shared some insights distilled from decades of peace-building work in conflict-affected Mindanao, especially in areas that are now part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). My sharing was focused on lessons and challenges of women in the aftermath of violent conflict. The experiences of southern Thailand women demonstrated the importance of asserting voice and agency in peace processes, not only in the formal platforms but also in community-based, local movements pushing for more meaningful participation of women in such processes. Asserting that women should not remain “victims” but push forward to become “victors,” this intrepid and resourceful group of women from embattled southern Thailand hurdled many factors that impeded their ongoing difficult journey toward empowerment. First, they had to grapple with a regime that has always been averse to forging peace agreements with the innumerable dissenting groups in largely Malay-Muslim-dominated southern Thailand. Then they had to deal with harassments from Thai military agents who threatened some of these women with possible incarceration.
One of the southern Thai women in the discussion was my classmate in a master’s course on Transitional Justice-Dealing with the Past conducted by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Bern, Switzerland, in July 2016. Before she arrived in Switzerland for the course, she had to go through a difficult process in order to travel outside her country. She was included in a list of “persons of interest” associated with some dissenting groups in southern Thailand, although her work is focused on creating community-based awareness of human rights, social justice, peace and development for the impoverished communities in her place of origin. It was during that two-week course that I learned about the prohibitive environment in southern Thailand for people who work for human rights—even more restrictive than in the Philippines. Hearing about our more “progressive” and gender-friendly environment (although still debatable), one participant said that she would like to transfer residence to any part of Mindanao!
It was clear to all participants that the journey of women in empowering themselves during peace processes in both southern Thailand and Mindanao (especially in the BARMM) is not a walk in the park. But some enabling factors can be culled from the conversation. These included: 1) the need to allocate sufficient time and resources for this long journey to make it significant, not only for women, but for all genders or gender identities; 2) the need to build trust-based collaborative relationships to replace competition-based power relations between men and women; and 3) the need to invest time, cooperation and genuine empathy to nurture and sustain such relationships.
These enabling factors may work in confluence with other existing realities in conflict-affected contexts. But these are not only true in doing peace-building work; they also apply to social development projects and programs. More importantly, these apply to interventions addressing deep cracks in governance in many contexts, not only in Muslim Mindanao but also in marginalized areas in different parts of the world.
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