Primary school children pray in front of their classroom at a school in Thailand’s southern Pattani Province before beginning their afternoon classes.
By Nattha Keenapan
SONGKHLA, Thailand, 18 March 2009 – The large, colourful drawing shows a monk, an Imam and Buddhist and Muslim citizens holding hands in a loving community where a mosque and a temple stand side by side. Beside them are Buddhists and Muslims praying for peace in Thailand’s violence-ridden southern border provinces.
The drawing, created by a group of Muslim children living in the restive south, represents their hope for an end to the violence in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla provinces, which has claimed the lives of more than 3,000 people since early 2004.
The drawing was made during a Youth Consultation organized by UNICEF Thailand late last year for children from the four provinces. The three-day consultation brought together 53 Muslim and Buddhist children to share their hopes and fears with an audience that included local security forces, government officials, academics and human rights activists from the deep south.
Children play in the rubble of a school that was destroyed by arson in Yala. Hundreds of schools in Narathiwat, Pattani, Yala and Songkhla have been severely damaged or destroyed due to the unrest.
An opportunity to speak out
“We lack love and peace,” said a 14-year-old participant from Pattani, who helped create the drawing. “But no matter how bad the situation is, if everyone comes together regardless of religion, sex and age, we can bring peace back to our lives.”
During the consultation, the children – who ranged in age from 11 to 18 – also created plays and music that reflected the reality of their daily lives. Some of the children cried when the performances touched upon issues such as domestic violence, physical punishment in schools, and drugs in communities.
“Children living in these border provinces have been deeply affected by the violence,” said UNICEF Representative in Thailand Tomoo Hozumi. “But there has not been enough attention paid to the impact it is having on them or what can be done to help them deal with it.”
A drawing created by Muslim children living in southernmost Thailand represents their hope for peace.
Lives changed by violence
Most of the children said the Youth Consultation was their first opportunity to speak out about the unrest to someone other than a member of their family or close friends.
“I feel relieved,” said Komareeyah Tohya, 14, a girl from Pattani whose school has been bombed. “It is different than the kind of relief I get from talking to my family, because I have the hope that people here will be able to help us.”
The children taking part in the Youth Consultation said their lives have been radically changed by the violence. They never go outside after dark. They no longer speak to strangers. They mingle less with their friends and neighbors due to growing mistrust among people in their communities.
Children place messages of their hopes and fears on a board at a Youth Consultation organized by UNICEF in Hat Yai, Thailand.
Children as victims and witnesses
Conducted in 2006-07 by the Thai non-governmental organizations Knowing Children, Friends of Thai Muslim Women, the Luk Riang Group and the Young Muslim Association of Thailand, the study involved some 2,400 Muslim and Buddhist children in the affected provinces. It used a variety of research methods especially designed to gather responses from children living in the deep south – including drawing, essays, visual stimulus, attitude surveys and network interviews.
The study was the first to give children living in the affected provinces the opportunity to directly express their perceptions of the violence and the impact it is having on their lives. According to the Ministry of Education, at least 30 school students were killed and 92 injured due to violence in the affected provinces between January 2004 and December 2007. In addition to being victims of the violence themselves, children have also borne witness to the brutal slaying of parents, other relatives, teachers and community members – and to fighting between soldiers and insurgents, bombings and the burning of their schools.
“Most children in the study said the greatest danger in their lives is the unrest,” Hozumi said. “Their responses indicate that almost every aspect of their lives carries risk because of the continuing violence, including attending school or going out to play.”
‘No one knows who killed him’
Hundreds of schools in the provinces have been severely damaged or destroyed over the past five years, and many children now travel to and from school, and attend school, under armed guard. Due to the unrest, education authorities have been forced to repeatedly close schools for periods ranging from days to months.
Asela Dorotae, 14, who witnessed the slaying of her father by insurgents two years ago in Yala, is among the tens of thousands of children living in the far south whose lives have been deeply affected by violence.
“We were on our way home,” recalled Asela, who still cries when she talks about his death. “The insurgents asked him to stop the motorcycle. They pushed him to the ground. Then they shot him and then stabbed him.”
Asela sat beside the body of her father for three hours before soldiers arrived at the scene. To date, no one knows who killed him or why.
Hopes of an end to conflict
Her father’s death led Asela to volunteer to participate in the study. She also joined the Luk Rieng Group and helped the NGO enlist children from other villages to participate in the study.
“I learned that I am not the only one who suffers from loss,” Asela said. “At first I wanted revenge, but then I realized that it would never bring an end to the violence. Peace has to start with us, the children, and I want adults to listen to children like me.”
Among the positive findings in the study was that none of the children expressed a biased or negative view of other religions or referred to religion as being a cause of the unrest. In addition, few children expressed negative opinions of soldiers and police.
A call for ‘zones of peace’
Rawsedee Leartariyapongkul, Project Manager of the Young Muslim Association of Thailand, said the study’s findings suggest that reconciliatory bonds clearly exist among children in the far south, and that actions are urgently needed to maintain positive thinking among young people and to prevent the violence from becoming inter-generational.
UNICEF is calling for establishment of ‘zones of peace’ – areas free of weapons, armed personnel and propaganda from all parties – in order to reduce violence and the stress it places on children.
“I believe this can happen,” said UNICEF Thailand Chief of Child Protection Amanda Bissex UNICEF Thailand, who noted that zones of peace have been successfully established in other conflict areas. Ms. Bissex said zones of peace could be set up at schools in the southern provinces where people in local communities are truly open and committed to the idea.
“So if there is violence in the community, children know that there is a place where they can go, where they will be safe and protected for the time that they are there,” Ms. Bissex added. “This is very important for reducing stress in a child’s life.”