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
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
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
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.
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