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Behind Gates, Thai Widows Find Haven From Conflict

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Thailand's simmering armed conflict has claimed more than 1,700 lives and has created a population of widows. Some have moved to a peaceful, gated widows' village built by the East Asian nation's queen.

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Thailand's simmering armed conflict has claimed more than 1,700 lives and has created a population of widows. Some have moved to a peaceful, gated widows' village built by the East Asian nation's queen.
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Jeh Ratifah

BAN ROTAN BATU, Thailand (WOMENSENEWS)--After years of yearning and months of praying, Jeh Ratifah finally has her dream house. Her kitchen looks out onto lush meadows, a sturdy wooden staircase leads up to her bedroom and her neighbors are the kindest people she knows. Rent is free and she has two acres of land to till for vegetables of her liking.

It's an idyllic lifestyle, but Ratifah, 43, has paid a heavy price for it.

At Ban RoTan Batu, a village located in the province of Narathiwat, all the residents are women who have lost their husbands to a violent conflict holding strong in southern Thailand. More than 1,700 lives have been claimed and almost 2,000 people injured by the bombs, bullets and grenades wielded by combatants since January 2004.

The roots of this conflict go back to 1909 when British colonialists annexed into Thailand the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. The regions had previously formed an independent Islamic kingdom. Since then separatist groups have spearheaded a movement to return to autonomy and tensions between Muslims and Buddhists are high in the southern provinces. Critics of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra point to his mishandling of the armed conflict as one motive for his ouster in a bloodless coup in September. The new government has hinted that it is willing to open talks with the Islamic groups.

Many of those killed in the conflict are Buddhists; Ratifah's husband was a Muslim, and she feels he was targeted because he was a police officer. On Sept. 11, 2004, Ratifah's husband was fatally shot by a hooded man astride a motorbike.

"When he was going to work that day, I had an ominous feeling that something bad was going to happen," she said, speaking through a translator. "I begged him not to go."

After his death, Ratifah was terrified that her husband's killers, who have never been caught, would come after her. She gathered her two children and fled her village, not knowing where she would go.

"I didn't want to live in my old house; I just didn't feel safe," she said, adding that without her husband's income, she wouldn't have been able to pay the rent anyway.

Gated Community for Widows

Widows' houses in Ban RoTan Batu.

Her husband's boss told her about Ban RoTan Batu, a village created from funds distributed by Thailand's Queen Sirikit, who has a long history of launching projects to help the impoverished. Almost 130 widows and their families now live in this gated community, which took in its first inhabitants in 2004. The queen donated over 700 acres of farmland and the project has incurred costs of more than $800,000.

Armed guards patrol the village at all times and security is tight. But beyond the checkpoints, the village is peaceful and serene. Identical houses constructed in neat rows dot the landscape, separated by vast expanses of farmland. The village is slowly becoming self-sufficient as some widows are setting up humble shops in their homes. For the children cycling on the streets, there are many diversions: an ostrich farm, a fish-breeding farm and pottery classes.

Trainers employed by the village teach the widows skills ranging from making pottery to working in a fish farm. For her work, every widow is paid 150 baht--about $4--a day, while the average per capita income in Thailand is about $7.50 per day. Plans are now underway for nine more such villages but only one is close to being completed.

Oai Jai, the community leader of RoTan Batu who is also a widow, says the demand for these villages is high. "Every day, so many women come up to me and beg for a house here but what can be done? There are only a few houses and many, many widows."

Civil Workers Drawn Into Conflict

Professor Srisompob Jitpiromsri, professor at Prince of Songkla University in Pattani province, has been studying the conflict for the last two years. He says the armed combatants are targeting the government and anyone they consider to be a representative of the regime.

"This is why teachers, police officers and soldiers are becoming victims because the insurgents think they are part of the government," he said.

The widow village provides a microcosm of the conflict that has ravaged southern Thailand. Twenty-six widows were married to police officers, three to teachers and 18 to government officers, according to Jai.

From the marketplaces to the rolling farmlands, fear is palpable in southern Thailand. "People are afraid that anything can happen at anytime," says Jitpiromsri. The conflict has dealt harsh blows to tourism, one of the main sources of revenue for Thailand. In the last two years, the number of visitors to the south has plummeted.

He says the south also feels resentful and frustrated at the lack of attention that has been paid to their situation. "In southern provinces, the majority of people are living under the poverty line," said Jitpiromsri. "Narathiwat, where the maximum number of attacks has taken place, is the poorest province in the south and one of the poorest in the country." In the region, many survive on less than $1 a day.

Ratifah's house in the village is sparsely decorated. There are no chairs or tables and the family sleeps on the floor in their upstairs bedroom. Despite the meager resources, Ratifah says she is content.

"I consider myself very lucky to have found a house here," she said. "If I hadn't come here, I might not have been alive."

Tea Between Neighbors

Her neighbor is a Buddhist woman, Timta Chaiyasit, and the two often have tea at each other's houses.

Chaiyasit, 45, became a widow two years ago when her husband, a farm laborer, was killed in front of her. Sometimes at night, she can still hear the three quick gunshots fired at her husband's chest.

Though she says she doesn't feel inspired to do much since her husband's death, Chaiyasit keeps her house spick-and-span. Plastic flowers are arranged in a glass vase and lace doilies are spread on top of the refrigerator and the television set. On the gleaming counters in her kitchen vegetables and spices are piled high. Since Chaiyasit only dares to leave the village once a month, she generally buys groceries in bulk.

But there is one dish she never cooks, fried chicken, because it brings back painful memories of her dead husband feasting on a platter of crispy chicken, dipping each piece in spicy relish before biting in.

"It has been two years but I just can't forget him," she said. "I keep thinking about him."

Chaiyasit's entire life revolves around the village. Every morning she rides her motorbike to her pottery-making class, works there till late afternoon, returns home for a meal and then takes a nap. In the evening she prays and sometimes pays a visit to her neighbors.

It's a life Chaiyasit is determined to hang on to.

"I never want to leave this village, never," she says. "I feel safe here and I don't know what will happen to me if I ever have to leave."

Ayesha Akram is a freelance writer whose work has been printed in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Washington Post and other publications. She is currently working on a book on liberal Islam being published by Beacon Press in 2008.