PATTANI, Thailand (TrustLaw) – One day in May 2008, Pattama Heemmina's husband of two months gave policemen in the southern Thai province of Songkhla a lift to the police station, a five-minute drive down the road. He did not return home for almost two years.
After a two-hour wait, Heemmina's worry turned to fear as she wondered whether her husband had been killed by Muslim rebels, who have been waging a separatist insurgency in the region against the country’s Buddhist majority since early 2004.
However, she discovered that he had been handcuffed and detained by the police, who were questioning him. Under duress, someone who had been arrested in connection with a murder case had fingered him as an accomplice, she said. He was accused of being an insurgent.
In the months that followed, confused and with little idea of what to do, Heemmina found her life turned upside down.
The 35-year-old went to see her husband every day at the police-station jail while shouldering more responsibilities at home and at work. She also visited military camps and the Southern Border Province Administrative Centre to ask for assistance.
She paid around 200,000 baht ($6,675) - a huge sum - to people who said they could help, but nothing materialised. Meanwhile, customer numbers at the garage she ran with her husband dwindled.
"The wife of the defendant is ostracised by the community because they think he's guilty, even if he is ultimately found not guilty," she told TrustLaw.
People started to look down on her, asking why an educated woman would choose such a husband. Some men asked her half-jokingly, "You want me to take care of you?"
"Everyone assumed my husband was an insurgent," Heemmina said, the memory clearly painful. When his case was dismissed and he was finally released in March 2010, an official told her, "Well, now you do not have to find a new husband."
But the family's troubles are not over yet. Right after the release of Heemmina's husband, the couple was too scared to go home for fear that state officials, upset about losing the case, would kill him. They still have nightmares about the ordeal. And, she said, officials continue to visit them regularly and take photos of her husband, as they do with most former detainees.
Heemmina believes her husband's name is now on the notorious "black list", which means these are the first suspects whenever there's a local "incident," a term used to describe insurgency-related violence.
"These days I try to stay close to my husband so that if an incident occurs, the officials know I'm with him and then he'll be safe," she explained.
HEAVY BURDEN FOR WOMEN
Aid workers and activists say Heemmina's experience is not unique.
Women whose husbands are killed because of the insurgency or detained by security forces become the family's sole breadwinners. They must take care of their children and deal with the community's negative perceptions of them at the same time, said Angkhana Neelapaijit, wife of prominent Muslim human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit, who has been missing since 2004.
According to Chidchanok Rahimmula, a political scientist and lecturer at Pattani's Prince of Songklha University, around 2,000 women have been widowed by insurgency-related violence in Thailand's three southernmost provinces and parts of Songkhla province, and more than 600 people are in detention. Even if they are released, their names go on the black list.
The southeast Asian nation's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were part of an independent Muslim sultanate until they were annexed by Thailand a century ago, and more than 80 percent of the population are ethnic Malay Muslims.
More than 4,500 people—Buddhists and Muslims-- have been killed and over 7,500 injured since the conflict began in these rubber-rich deep southern provinces, just a few hours by car from some of Thailand's top tourist destinations.
At least 15 people already have been killed this year in drive-by shootings, bomb explosions and a raid on an army camp.
Women like Heemmina and Neelapaijit are using their experiences to support others who have been effected, especially when it comes to mental health. Women in such situations suffer from anxiety and nightmares, and may be afraid of strangers, said experts.
Along with her elder sister Anchana Heemmina, Heemmina runs the Duayjai Hearty Support Group, which assists the families of 55 detainees in Songklha province.
They arrange family visits to the prison and help the women get access to justice, which "is very difficult" and can take several years, said Anchana.
Locals in the Muslim-majority south resent the presence of tens of thousands of police, soldiers and state-armed Buddhist guards, who they say discriminate against them.
The Emergency Decree, in place since 2005 in the provinces, allows security forces to detain suspected insurgents for up to 30 days, giving them time to act with impunity, rights groups say.
Major General Preecha Chan-ocha, commissioner of the Yala special task force unit, however, said they use soft measures and respect the human rights of detainees. He said, “The most effective way, whether short-term or long-term, is good access to the public.”
The government has poured millions of baht into development projects to the impoverished region in an attempt to win people over and has said it is committed to tackling the situation through peaceful means. The military plays a prominent role in these projects aiming to gain the trust of local villagers. However, there may still be some way to go.
"The feeling of the wife whose husband was arrested by the military is of hatred, not only towards the military but also the government," said Pattama Heemmina. "Because we have to cooperate with them, but they cannot help us and we feel looked down on by them."
“Unless the authorities change their ways, the rebel groups will exploit the unjust and unfair treatment of villagers by the government, the police and the military to fan the flames of the conflict, she added.
"Maybe my story can help the state officials and army to understand that they have to work carefully and more sincerely."
The historic Krue Se mosque still bears the scars of the insurgency - bullet holes from the 2004 standoff at the mosque are still visible. Taken on 28th February 2011. AlertNet/Thin Lei Win