Suwimon Piriyathanalai is bringing together artisan fishing communities to protect coastal resources. By involving each community in a community-based management program to preserve and prevent the further deterioration of these resources, Suwimon is providing a new path for conflict prevention in Thailand.
The New Idea
Protection of the communities’ coastal resources and livelihoods has long been a source of conflict in Thailand’s southernmost provinces. Suwimon is determined to work with the Muslim Malays, a traditionally marginalized group, to develop a nonviolent channel to defend their rights to fish and establish an initial step towards nurturing peace in the region. Suwimon is using her integration and work experience to encourage local communities and officials to work together. By building strong and well-informed community associations, she is increasing the capacity of coastal Malay Muslims to defend their interests and negotiate effectively with the state and other actors. These community associations play a key role in protecting the coastal environment, preventing violent conflicts over coastal resources, and making the residents less vulnerable to the pressure of recruitment efforts of armed groups in the region.
Eighty percent of Thais living in Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat, Thailand’s three southernmost provinces, are Malays by race, language, culture, and religion. The inception of the British-Siam Treaty of 1902 divided this southern region between Thai and British colonizers, with Thailand imposing cultural colonization on Malay Muslims to the extent that they took Thai names. Malay language was suppressed and they were forced to adopt Thai culture and language. From the 1960s through the 1980s, there was a massive transmigration of Thai Buddhists from the north of Thailand to the south to balance the racial and religious demographics in favor of the ethnic Buddhist Thais. The people of southern Thailand are adamant about reclaiming their history, politics, economy, culture, and dignity. Violence has been steadily escalating since 2004, exacerbated by state policies. There is widespread concern that the unrest could become an insurgency, as violence becomes more frequent. In July of 2005, Prime Minister Thaksin declared a State of Emergency, granting sweeping powers to security forces, allowing the imposition of curfews, banning public gatherings, limiting travel, censoring publications, detaining suspects without charge, confiscating property, and tapping telephones. With the continued extension of the decree, at least 1,113 people have died.
The province of Pattani has been home to artisan fisher communities for centuries. They are spread across 52 villages with an 80 percent Muslims population. Traditional fishing has been the main source of livelihood for these communities. In 1999, Thailand's small-scale fishers comprised 88 percent of the entire fishing population. However, commercial fishing boats have increased operation in the area due to heavy export-oriented policies.
The promotion of large-scale fishing enterprises and seafood processing for export-only production threatens the livelihoods of fishing communities. Modern fishing technology, such as trawler boats with push nets, not only destroys the diversity of marine resources but damages traditional fishing tools such as artificial coral reefs or traps.
In 1993, Thailand banned the use of fishing nets less than 3,000 meters from the shore and restricted the shallower fishing grounds to small-scale fishermen. As the largest importer of pre-processed frozen tuna for canning and greatest exporter of canned tuna, Thailand’s enforcement of the ban remains minimal. Corruption and negligent law enforcement further fuel the negligence. Reticent to arrest illegal trawlers, many government officials claim that the protection zone is not clearly marked or that arrests make officials vulnerable to being sued by trawler operators. Others claim a lack of resources to patrol the coastal areas. Lack of effective monitoring and enforcement worsens the economic situation of fishermen and increases the chance of violence as local fishermen demand justice for the abuse of their land and rights. Unable to make a living, many fishermen are forced to leave and work as hired laborers in Malaysia, while others stay and endure harsh poverty. Some fishers work in restaurants and farm plantations, others apply for work on commercial fishing ships where they are exposed to drugs and the risk of HIV/Aids. The fishers and families that remain in the coastal areas form a weak barrier against violent perpetrators seeking to recruit villagers into their insurgency. Often poorly equipped in the Thai language, communities struggle to negotiate their cases with local authorities and raise awareness of their situation.
Suwimon’s strategy, which is expanding to the neighboring province of Narathiwat, works by developing community-based management of natural resources among villagers and effective communication and recognition between villagers and local authorities. Working from within the affected communities, Suwimon encourages the participation of local fishermen in natural resource management through targeted consultations, activities, and trainings. Placing emphasis on the collaboration of the entire community, Suwimon organizes forums and brainstorming sessions on specific issues affecting their area. She encourages fishermen to investigate other regions in Thailand and see the destruction of livelihoods due to large development projects, which motivates them further to take action and prevent such destruction to their villages. The preliminary form of an active local organization emerges with the goal of building up community capacity, including leadership, negotiation skills, and knowledge of legal regulations and enforcement. With improved self-confidence, fishermen and their communities approach Suwimon with the idea of creating a legally registered organization, giving the community a legal basis from which to negotiate and place reforms.Suwimon founded the Association of Traditional Fishing Folks in 1993, an organization that currently includes 47 villages and extends beyond fishing communities to include local authorities, the Assembly of the Poor (Thailand’s largest and strongest grassroots movement), academics, students, and other political figures. She worked with the communities to produce studies, surveys, and publications on the deterioration of coastal resources and on the work done by local communities to preserve coastal ecosystems. In 1998, Suwimon received funding from the Thai Research Institute (a government agency) to conduct research on the issue of law enforcement along the coasts of Pattani. Using this research as a tool to organize workshops and trainings, she was able to educate the general public, government officials, and other citizen sector organizations to advocate for the improvement of government policies and laws with respect to the utilization and management of coastal resources.Suwimon is using her research, collaboration with other organizations and the media to campaign for better law enforcement and for the revision of government policies towards coastal resources. In response, the government issued a law in 2000 to halt trawlers’ fishing operations in Pattani province. After a five-year battle, from 1998 to 2003, the law was amended to include a decree banning the use of push nets and enforcing the existing three-kilometer boundary. Suwimon helped the villagers raise funds, partly through the United Nations Global Environmental Facility, to purchase two patrol boats. Teams of villagers and officials now take turns patrolling the protected zone. By combining the peaceful community association with environmental awareness and socioeconomic development activities, Suwimon’s approach promotes successful conflict resolution and coastal preservation. Her current work impacts approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people. She estimates that her community association will grow to include over 83,000 people. The next step is to spread the model to the neighboring province of Narathiwat.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Suwimon was brought up in a warm and loving family, which shaped her social values and passion for the underprivileged; along with teachers, academics, and citizen organization workers. As a student activist, she learned about rural life in Thailand through visits to villages in the Northeastern provinces, participating in a student work camp. Discovering how some government policies have negatively impacted communities triggered her interest in social work. With an English degree from Chulalongkorn University she looked for jobs with English newspapers and began work with Earth Island, an environmental organization. As an information officer, she was introduced to and inspired by Ashoka Fellow Pisit Chansanoh. Their collaboration on a research project on fishing enabled Suwimon to observe how hard the locals worked to survive, defend their way of life and environment.When Pisit’s staff invited her to visit Pattani, Suwimon had no idea it would become her home. She headed to the southernmost provinces, studying diligently to learn Malay, deepening her understanding of the traditional ways of life and seeking to apply her knowledge to the practical needs and work in the field. When she was able to speak and conduct meetings with villagers in their own dialect, her findings strengthened her belief that a combined sustainable development and civic participation project could promote peace, economic viability, and environmental protection.