This time of year, couples often show their love for each other. But political prisoners and their spouses are not so fortunate, and remain separated, often for many years.
Romuelah Saeyeh spent one half of her married life – five years – going back and forth to Pattani prison in order to visit her husband, Muhamadanwar Hajiteh, whom she knows as Anwar, an activist working in Thailand’s three southern provinces.
On 1 May 2013, the Supreme Court ruled that Anwar was a member of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional, or BRN, a secessionist group calling for the independence of Patani, and found him guilty of conspiring to commit insurrection. The evidence that the court relied upon was largely testimony given by insurgent suspects during pre-charge detention under the special security law. This detention period is notorious for the torture of suspects to elicit confessions and other information. Although there was no accusation that Anwar had involvement in any violent incident, and although Anwar denied all charges, he was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment. The case aroused criticism because of its weak evidence, giving birth to the Free Anwar campaign. (Read more here).
Romuelah said that “The first two months that Anwar was imprisoned, I was bewildered and wondered what I would do, what could I do in this situation? I read the judgement thoroughly and analyzed it with the assistance of lawyers. Even though I knew that this case had been argued up to the highest authority, I still felt that the evidence was very weak, and thought that justice must prevail in the end. So I went to the United Nations and, after that, initiated the ‘Free Anwar’ campaign. Many, many people came to join in. It made us feel like we weren’t alone in this struggle. Actually getting up and struggling for something is hard medicine.”
Life has changed a lot for Romuelah since Anwar went to prison. After getting married at the end of 2010, she continued to be a career woman, not living with Anwar in Pattani’s Yarang district because of her work in Narathiwat. The two were devoted to their work and independent of each other, but this all changed three years later. When Anwar was imprisoned in 2013, Romeulah decided to move to Anwar’s home in Pattani in order to take care of his father and especially his mother, who had numerous health problems. In addition, she quit her job in order to become a freelancer, with the freedom to visit Anwar in prison regularly.
The couple first met five years ago, during a study trip on the peace process in India. After knowing each other for a year, the couple decided to get married. “Anwar was younger than me by two years. At that time I asked him, ‘Anwar, are you flirting with an older woman?’ He responded ‘So what?’
Romeulah recalled that, even after facing charges, Anwar continued to try to develop his communication skills, both pertaining to his own case as well as that of his community. He was bright and creative, co-founded Bunga Raya and Wantani, citizen media groups which aim to empower locals. Meanwhile, Romeulah worked tirelessly on a project to help youth who had been affected by the violence in the South. Anwar’s work deeply impressed Romeulah.
This was only the beginning of their mutual respect and understanding. “Anwar admitted to me that I could be his life partner because I could understand and share in all of these things.”
The logo of the Free Anwar campaign
But their troubles persisted. Romeulah related that, on 22 March 2014, although her husband was imprisoned, an officer stormed into her house in order to take DNA samples to compare with those found at a site of violence that had taken place 13 February that year, a time when Anwar had been imprisoned for nearly a year.
“I'm trying to stay positive. He’s in prison, where he’s safer than he would be outside. Some people are arrested over and over again because their names are on the blacklist and officers always come around. Even though Anwar was in prison for 10 months, there were still officers coming around to check for DNA samples and he still, incredibly, appears as a suspect in new cases. It has made it very clear to us that, were Anwar to be free at home, he would have to continually go to meet the police and to the court again and again.”
For the past three years, Romeulah has been constantly “visited” by the authorities. The Thai authorities once categorized her as “Party B,” the term for people who side with the secessionist movement, in a public forum. Online, bullies threaten her and her family. In everyday society, Romeulah feels comfortable, as her family and community understand. This is unlike many families of the accused in the three southernmost provinces who face stigmatization and choose to isolate themselves from society.
The Test of True Love
The couple can only see each other for fifteen minutes a day, when they talk through a pane of glass. It is a very short time. Anwar and Romeulah must use each moment to the fullest, telling stories from outside the prison and expressing their thoughts and feelings, and building their relationship.
“Anwar is very eager to know about the situation outside. He always asks so many questions and I have to tell him so many different things so quickly. Apart from things like where did I go, who did I meet, what did I do, I have to brief him on the progress of the peace talks. For instance, he might ask, ‘who is MARA Patani’? I talk so much! One day I teased him that he’s turning me into a chatterbox. I asked him whether, when he comes back home, he will be able to listen to me chattering on at him like this? He responded that ‘I will. If you keep speaking so well, I will always be listening!’” Romeulah laughed. “Some days I get tired of talking about politics, and ask him to talk about us.”
First year of marriage. Photo courtesy of Romuelah Saeyeh
Whoever would have thought that talking for just fifteen minutes, could still leave enough time for romance?
“In order to meet him, I have to drive to the jail and then wait for about two hours in order to meet him for just fifteen minutes. We agreed that, for this reason, we must have only good stories. We have to build the romance as much as we can. Now, I feel like Anwar is hitting on me again– courtship after marriage! It’s halal flirting!”
“Our moments are short, but we encourage each other, try to give each other as much good energy as we can. There was one time that I felt discouraged and he looked calmly at me and said ‘I want to hold you.’”
“Inside the prison, Anwar talks with a lot of men whose wives have left them because their husbands can no longer look after them. This worried him a great deal, because we don’t have any children together. I told him, ‘Wait a minute. Why have you brought this topic to me?’ He responded that he was worried because I am virtually single because I can look after myself. I answered ‘Don't you trust me? If your love for me is finished, only at that point will my heart change. It doesn’t matter whether you’re inside this prison or outside. I only want you to look after my heart. That’s enough.”
Romeulah says that even though Anwar does not have his freedom, she sees their current struggle as a test that proves their love’s strength.
“If he wasn’t in prison, we might have split up, because we love our freedom and our work. But after meeting this test, it allows us to look at our feelings and realize that, even through all of this, we still love each other. Now, we feel like we want to have another wedding! I playfully told him that when he gets freedom, he should ask me to marry him again. Then we will hold another wedding, a celebration of our true love, to welcome Anwar home and to thank all of our friends.”
The couple's traditional Melayu style wedding on 21 November 2010. Photo courtesy of Romuelah Saeyeh
Translated into English by Andrew Alan Johnson