Wannakanok Pohitaedaoh is ending a vicious cycle of violence in southern Thailand by empowering child victims of political violence to become advocates for peace. Wannakanok’s work has reversed the role of young people from marginalized victims and voiceless members of society to become an active taskforce for peace building
The New Idea
In southern Thailand, as in many other armed conflict areas, young people are often targeted as strategic victims to attract public attention. Wannakanok is equipping orphans from political violence with emotional management and leadership skills to steer them away from self-victimization and vengeance. Convinced that relief effort for young victims of violence alone is not sufficient, Wannakanok is establishing a systematic approach to empower youth and breed a new generation of leaders. Using arts and creative activities, she engages both Muslim and Buddhist orphans in healing camps, training them to support one another and lead the young community away from another generation of violence. By creating formal and informal spaces for youth to exercise their leadership skills, Wannakanok is fostering active citizenship among youth and creating a community that stands up for peace. She is also breaking the exclusion and isolation brought by violence by connecting with mainstream media to bridge the gap of information and to mobilize external support to end violence. Her work has reversed the perception of youth from voiceless victims to ambassadors of peace and development.
The three southernmost provinces in Thailand--namely Pattani, Yala and Narathivas-- are the core areas most affected by the armed conflict and political violence since 2004. Children and youth constitute 24.7 per cent of the population of these three provinces, which is higher than the country’s average (20.1). As in many armed conflict areas, these children and youth are targeted as strategic victims to attract public attention. Thai government statistics reveal that the past decade of political violence in the three southern border provinces has turned over 5,000 children into orphans, some of whom have physical disabilities. With geographical distance, distinctive language and religion, children growing up in Southern border provinces had already been facing numerous barriers prior to escalation of the conflict starting in 2004. Violence has further isolated children and youth growing up in these areas from the rest of the country and exacerbated the said challenges. With many acts of political violence target public schools as symbols of the state, education of children in southern Thailand is constantly disrupted as both teachers and students are being targeted. Diminishing safe space for play and creative activities has forced children in the areas to live in constant fear and suspicion. Research shows that children who grow up in war and conflict areas experience chronic stress, depression and other mental disorders. A 2010 study conducted with 3000 children aged 11-18 across Thailand’s three southernmost provinces by Thailand’s Ministry of Health reveals that nearly 22 per cent had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), while nearly 40 per cent showed signs of emotional and behavioral problems including anxiety, loss of confidence, poor attention span, fear and aggression. Yet, addressing PTSD in children in a methodological and systematic manner is not a priority of most public and civil organizations. As a result, child victims who have lost their families to political violence are likely to seek retaliation and are prone to manipulation by different interest groups. Traditional perceptions that children should remain passive members of society further limit the ability of children to explore creative expressions and gain the necessary self-confidence to become active participants in the peace-building process. The rights of the child have often been neglected and disrespected by different groups. Without institutions to protect and heal these children, the vicious cycle of violence will be sustained.
Believing that peacebuilding is only possible when children and youth are protected and empowered, Wannakanok is creating an innovative and systematic approach to heal and transform children in conflict and foster a movement of youth advocates for peace in southern Thailand. In 2004, Wannakanok founded the Association of Children and Youth for the Peace in the Southernmost Provinces of Thailand (nicknamed Luk Rieng Group) to empower and provide protection and support to orphans of political violence of all spectrums: state representatives, citizens and the suspected perpetrators. Beyond ensuring the basic safety net for orphans through provision of shelter and scholarships, Wannakanok is steering affected children and youth away from self-victimization and vengeance through a creative healing camp and leadership training programs. Self-taught through reading and assisting in healing sessions for adults, Wannakanok is adapting several techniques used in psychology to customize her healing programs to meet the levels of trauma and needs of various age groups. For example, for younger victims of political violence, Wannakanok is using arts and non-verbal techniques including role play, guided imagery, sketching personal timelines, music and dance sessions, and storytelling to help them explore their loss and let go of negative emotions. As a caravan of stories visits local schools, young authors read their own fictionalized stories to other schoolchildren and lead discussions about anger and forgiveness. Representing the candid voice of orphans of political violence, 50 of these powerful stories will be assembled and published into a book at the end of 2014. Her innovative methods allow young victims of conflict to heal and develop emotional resilience. As of 2014, the healing camp has reached youth in every district in the three southern border provinces, with more than 2000 past participants, many of whom have become trainers to the next generations. To end a vicious cycle of violence, Wannakanok is nurturing a new generation of young leaders of all genders and religions to become the ambassadors of peace. In the context where young people are traditionally viewed as passive members with no decision making power, Wannakanok is reversing this perception through effective youth leadership training programs. By equipping them with skills and confidence, Wannakanok is empowering youth to form a network and collectively self-mobilize to assert their voices and demands for peace. A regional Student Council set up by Wannakanok serves as a platform to engage youth of all genders from secular and religious schools, as well as those outside the school system, to build their skills and awareness in areas such as in volunteerism, public debate, consensus-building and other critical social issues including gender equality, corruption, and good governance. Young members are funded to implement their own projects to address social issues in their communities, incubating citizen activism. Each year, the Student Council organizes a community fair, with thousands of local participants, sponsored by local businesses regardless of religion and political faction. This platform for youth by youth uses different art forms such as music, drama and poetry to voice their opinions and trigger dialogue among community leaders and national authorities. Announced at the fair, this year's Youth Declaration requesting the establishment of “conflict-free play areas” has resulted in a Memorandum of Understanding signed by the army, police, local municipalities, local office of Welfare Promotion, Protection and Empowerment of Vulnerable Groups, commercial centers, schools, and universities. The mindset and attitude toward young people of both adults and of youth themselves has been reversed from the “helpless victims and voiceless members of society” to “active change agents”, who will become future leaders of their communities. To ensure sustainability of her work, Wannakanok focuses on building her own human resources. Instead of relying on external experts, Wannakanok is training the alumni of her programs to become a core engine that drives and sustains her programs and activities. More than half of her staff, including an in-house psychologist, are the alumni of the healing camp. Children of the healing camp have formed a taskforce to provide support one another beyond the camp through activities such as conducting home-visits and delivering food to new orphans. By instilling the sense of public service in youth, Wannakanok has broadened the formerly limited career options for them, leading many to pursue work in the civil society sector as a result. Through an innovative youth development program called Operacy, Wannakanok is systematically breeding a new generation of local leaders in various sectors. As of 2014, over 1000 young graduates have returned home to serve as public officials, community leaders and civil society workers. Believing that peacebuilding and youth development cannot be done in isolation, Wannakanok is using creative techniques to create a civic-minded environment at large where peace can flourish. For example, to promote reading and access to books, Wannakanok set up a network of public libraries and reading corners, consisting of book baskets in teashops and other public spaces. People who read these books have become more aware of their rights and duty as citizens and have begun to become more outspoken in public meetings. These transformations of other community members lead to greater exercise of active citizenship at large and a more sustainable ground for peace. Recognizing that violence isolates and further alienates the three southernmost provinces from the rest of the country, Wannakanok actively engages with prominent artists and mainstream media including newspapers, television and radio programs outside the areas to bridge the gap of information, mobilize resources and highlight an instrumental role of youth in bringing peace to the areas. As a columnist for Bangkok Business newspaper, Wannakanok reports on the impact of violence on children and youth as well as on positive initiatives taken by them, demonstrating leadership and potential of the youth of the south. By maintaining this connection with the world outside the conflict areas, Wannakanok is keeping this critical issue on the spotlight and in consciousness of mainstream public, while making youth and children in the conflict areas feel that they are still part of the larger community. Wannakanok has succeeded in mobilizing both critical in-kind and funding support from diverse sources ranging from local governments, the armed forces, comedians and movie stars, prominent international organizations to religious leaders. In 2013, she raised 1.7 million baht from auctions of children’s artwork and sales of donated goods, out of an annual budget of 4 million baht. Beyond addressing issues at hand, Wannakanok is taking a proactive approach to engage with public and governmental bodies to create space for youth participation at the institutional level in a long run. In her role as a committee member for provincial youth strategy, Wannakanok is pushing for inclusion of youth and the civil society in the planning and budgeting of the strategy and in all of the government’s projects. Wannakanok’s experience has also become a well-respected model for other youth groups coping with armed conflict. In late 2013, as political violence erupted in other parts of Thailand demanding overthrow of the current government, Wannakanok and youth leaders in the Deep South joined efforts in calling for protesters of all factions to refrain from using children as the frontline. She has also spoken at international conferences, sharing her techniques in training young victims of violence to discharge their anger in creative ways and become community leaders. Over the next three years, Wannakanok will facilitate collaboration between local schools and communities to create “conflict-free play areas” in at least 20 towns across the southern border provinces. In addition, she is in the process of building a seed fund for children to form groups and initiate civic activities in their own communities. Her ultimate goal is to reverse the perception of youth as beneficiaries to youth as a key stakeholder group who works alongside adults to bring about lasting peace and democracy.
Growing up in a small village in Yala province, where most girls were forced to marry at a young age and were denied access to higher education, Wannakanok has always been determined to demonstrate that gender did not limit her capabilities to work and make a positive difference for her community. Wannakanok’s exceptional leadership and influencing skills shone as early as age 12, when she founded a club for girls who opposed early marriage and sought higher education. All of the club members completed their high school education, a rare opportunity for women in the traditional Muslim communities of southern Thailand. With her strong leadership skills, Wannakanok has been successful in mobilizing other youth in her community to take initiatives to address social issues and improve gender equality. Wannakanok shifted the focus of her work to empower young victims of violence, after discovering that no organization worked to address the trauma and loss experienced by children living in armed conflict, leaving them vulnerable to further abuse and manipulation. In the past decade, Wannakanok herself has lost four siblings from the armed conflict and takes care of her sibling’s orphans, despite continuing life threats against her work. In an environment where leadership is still strongly associated with being male, Wannakanok faces numerous challenges and criticisms based on her gender. Yet, she has become the forefront voice from the south that speaks to the rest of the country. Wannakanok has received numerous national awards in recognition of her work, from both public and private institutions.