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Thailand: Blood on the border
By Ioannis Gatsiounis

As the death toll continued to rise on Wednesday from clashes between local authorities and "bandits" in Thailand's predominantly Muslim south, confusing signals were coming out of Bangkok as to the nature of the incident and what needs to be done about the spate of violence that has plagued the area for nearly four months.

At least 90 people, most of them Muslim "bandits", were killed after machete-wielding youths attacked police and Thai military personnel early Wednesday, the Thai government said. The dead also included four members of the security forces, said the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

Thaksin had been scheduled to visit the troubled southern area next week. He called an emergency security meeting after Wednesday's violence.

Most of Thailand is Buddhist, but Muslims predominate in the three southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. The region has been rocked by violence since a January 4 raid on an army barracks that left four soldiers dead and resulted in a substantial theft of weapons. Nearly 60 more people had died in the wave of violence before the incidents on Wednesday.

Bangkok claimed on Wednesday that the most recent violence was of a simple criminal nature and had nothing to do with a separatist insurgency or with the broader problem of Islamic extremism that exists throughout Southeast Asia, especially Indonesia and the Philippines. However, Thaksin recently rankled the neighboring predominantly Muslim country of Malaysia by criticizing its lax border-control measures and accusing it of harboring terrorists responsible for at least some of the violence in the south. Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar responded by warning Thailand to stop playing the "blaming game".

Still, that was a brief and rather uncharacteristic spat between the two neighbors, which have a long history of bilateral cooperation based on mutual economic interests, and niceties and reassurances soon prevailed. Ahead of a meeting between Thaksin and Malaysian Premier Abdullah Badawi to discuss the issue, Malaysian Defense Minister Najib Razak told reporters: "Our forces are put on high alert on the border." Afterward Thaksin called the meeting one of "cordiality and excellent understanding" and Abdullah vowed to cooperate.

But evidence emerging from Wednesday's violence, among other things, suggests that not much has changed since February, when Asia Times Online crossed Malaysia's Bukit Kayu Hitam checkpoint in the state of Kedah into Thailand and back again without being asked to produce a passport; the Malaysian nationals who accompanied ATol and are "friendly" with the border patrol report that they are still free to roam, despite Malaysia's get-tough pledge. All it often takes is what locals term angkat tangan, a raise of the hand: thanks.

Malaysian officials reject claims that their border patrol might be less than stringent. But they admit they haven't altered their tactical approach since the dispute surfaced. Immigration will continue to check passports. Customs will occasionally search bags and vehicles with what one worker calls an "open what we can see" approach.

"We are always doing our job, so what is to change?" said Abdurrahman July, director of immigration in Kedah, where 4,000 Malaysians cross daily into Thailand through the Bukit Kayu Hitam checkpoint alone.

He and other Malaysian officials say procedural change will depend largely on Thailand - that Thailand should hand over lists of suspected terrorists to be checked against passports. In the meantime, they would not nor could not look for "terrorist-looking" types. "What does a terrorist look like?" July asked.

So far Malaysia can count itself lucky. Unlike Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, it has managed to avoid a major terrorist incident - and yet it is a known stopping point for international terrorists. Two of the September 11, 2001, hijackers visited Malaysia, as did Jemaah Islamiya (JI) regional leader Riduan "Hambali" Isamuddin, whom authorities nabbed in Thailand last August. Three of the top six suspects in the Bali bombing were either Malaysian or had spent time in Indonesia. And this month four Malaysians being detained in Indonesia confessed on national television their involvement with the regional terrorist group JI (see Malaysian media try trial by TV, April 9).

After that airing, Abullah said no one now should doubt the JI's threat. But according to Malaysian customs, immigration and foreign-affairs officials, Abdullah, who is also home minister, has failed to act on the knowledge; they have yet to receive a new mandate from him on border-control policy.

Said one Customs Department employee: "In Malaysia, the general attitude is, if nothing happens, let well enough alone. If something happens, then deal with it."

Some find this baffling, especially with all that Abdullah and his colleagues formally acknowledge. Albar recently told officials from the United States and a handful of Southeast Asian countries that the threat of terrorism was getting worse by the day. Agence France-Presse quoted him as saying: "International terrorism will remain a common threat confronting us unless we adopt a comprehensive approach to confront the scourge."

It's the basics, though, that Malaysia might want to focus on first, with checkpoint neglect not limited to the Thai border. In the eastern Malaysian town of Tebedu, Indonesian laborers can be seen strolling unchecked into Malaysia past the immigration booth. An American expatriate and frequent user of the checkpoint said he often has to take the initiative to have his passport stamped.

Internal Affairs Minister Hazima Kalid is convinced border personnel are doing a fine job. On the other hand, he said, the war against terror is neither won nor lost at checkpoints. The Thai-Malaysian border runs 506 kilometers. Malaysia's and Indonesia's common border on the island of Borneo, much of it dense jungle, stretches 1,670 kilometers. And as Asia Times Online noted last May 22, Malaysia has 2,068 kilometers of coast along the peninsula and another 2,607 kilometers in Borneo (Malaysian coastline easy pickings).

In the world of borders, Malaysia's challenges are unexceptional. But they do make it impossible to be terrorist-proof, even if Malaysia were to tighten checkpoint security.

Kalid said the real test is how suspected terrorists are dealt with once they're in a country. In this respect, he said, Malaysia is a forerunner. He points to the Internal Security Act (ISA), which reserves the right to detain suspects without trial and under which some 80 suspected terrorists are now being held, including an opposition leader's son. So effective has been the heavily criticized ISA in deterring terrorism, said Kalid, that many countries, including the US, have since adopted similar legislation. Kalid added that Malaysian Intelligence is first-rate, having been set up by the British and assisted over the years by the US.

For its part, Thailand has been proceeding more boldly on trying to stem the flow of violent elements - be they terrorists or "bandits" - into the country. Monthly arrests of suspected terrorists on its side of the checkpoints often climb into the dozens. Thaksin has ordered his chief of police aggressively to weed out corrupt immigration officers who may be responsible for letting terrorists into Thailand. He has also called for investigations into the issue of dual citizenship, which he says has allowed some of those responsible for southern Thailand's unrest to gain refuge in Malaysia.

The Malaysian government says it, too, is determined to resolve the matter - it's just waiting for Thailand's lead. But until Thailand gets to grips with what is really happening in its southern provinces, it seems certain that even more people will have to die.

(Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Apr 29, 2004

After Madrid, Manila? (Apr 24, '04)

Terror in Thailand: 'Ghosts' and jihadis (Apr 3, '04)

Anti-terror report card: Malaysia vs Thailand (Mar 19, '04)

Southeast Asia's counter-terror industry (Mar 10, '04)

'Religious conflict' worries Thai premier (Jan 28, '04)

Terrorists regroup in southern Thailand (Apr 19, '03)

Thailand: Terrorists and spin doctors (Jun 20, '03)


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