Wed, May 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Those left behind by southern Thailand violence take refuge in Widows' Village


One quiet evening, just after 7pm, three masked militants burst into Anna Seesook's house and started shooting.

With bullets lodged in her right arm, Anna fell to the floor and pretended to be dead. She heard her husband screaming in agony and asking the militants: "Why are you killing us? Why? Why?"

The response from one of the militants was chilling: "This is a reward for good people."

On that evening in April last year, Anna lost her husband, 45, whose body was riddled with 11 bullets, one of 1,200 fatalities of a two-year insurgency that has rocked Thailand's Muslim-majority south since January 2004.

After two months in hospital, the 37-year-old widow, who is half German and half Thai, was too scared to return to her village in Narathiwat, one of three restive southern provinces, and asked the local government for a safe house.

"That's how I came to this village," she says, referring to the Rotan Batu village in Narathiwat, which is locally known as "Widows' Village."

Created by Thailand's Queen Sirikit in January last year, the village has 103 modest, white-colored, two-story houses for women who lost their husbands in the violence.

The Thai military stand guard round the clock for some 60 women and their children in the village, which covers 80 hectares of land with farms for vegetables, fruit and livestock including ostriches for self-sufficiency.

The women sell agricultural products at local markets, while some earn money by making accessories and sewing dresses. The average age of the women living in the village is 36.

Buddhists account for 95 percent of Thailand's 63 million population, with Muslims at 4 percent to 5 percent.

But more than 80 percent of people in the south bordering Malaysia are Muslims, many ethnic Malays who speak Yawi or Malayu dialects.

The region was an independent sultanate until Thailand annexed it a century ago. Separatist violence has periodically flared since then, but reignited over the past two years.

Local government officials, police and the military are often targeted by Islamic insurgents but Muslims seen as sympathetic to the government are also attacked.

But exactly who is behind the violence remains a mystery, with experts saying that there is a complex web of Islamic separatists, organized criminals and local corruption.

In the widows' village, Buddhists and Muslims are in equal number and live side by side.

Anna, a Buddhist, says her husband, a Muslim, was a woodcutter, and he sometimes worked for local government officials.

Malyana Manu, a 35-year-old Muslim, came to the village after her husband, a 36-year-old government engineer, was gunned down in Narathiwat in May 2004 while riding a motorcycle on his way to work in the morning.

"I have no idea why he was killed. He was a good man. He did not hurt anyone. He helped lots of people," says Malyana, her eyes gazing into the distance.

The couple have a seven-year-old daughter.

"I said goodbye to him on that morning and did not see him ever again," she says.

But living here has given her moral support from the women who have gone through the same trauma of losing their husbands in the violence.

Malyana has made friends with Sadoh Leeming, a petite 36-year-old Muslim, who was four months pregnant with her second child when her husband, a 42-year-old police officer, was shot dead one morning in April 2004.

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