How Malaysia sees Thailand's southern strife By S P Harish
The flight of 131 ethnic-Malay Thais from the conflict zones of southern
Thailand into neighboring Kelantan state in Malaysia in August led to a war of
words between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Thailand insisted that all of them be
repatriated but Malaysia maintained that it would do so only after a rights
The situation has simmered after Malaysia recently returned one of the
refugees, a suspected militant. Relations between the two countries now seem to
be on the mend, with officials on both sides expressing confidence over
cooperating with each other and working together to resolve the discord. This
incident marks the
latest in a series of arguments between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur over the
strife in southern Thailand. Over the past two years, such incidents as the
Krue Se debacle in April 2004, in which 32 were killed in the mosque in a
standoff between police and suspected insurgents, and the Tak Bai tragedy later
that year, which resulted in the deaths of 85 demonstrators, have derailed
efforts to increase goodwill between both sides.
Overtly, Malaysia has maintained that it will not interfere into the internal
affairs of Thailand, and yet its leaders make comments over the situation in
Thailand's restive south. At times, Kuala Lumpur is perceived to be cooperating
well with the Thai authorities but at other times, it appears to be making
things difficult for Bangkok. This rather incongruous position has led some to
allege that Malaysia may be supporting the insurgency in the southern Thai
provinces. In order to understand Malaysia's actions, the conflict needs to be
examined from Kuala Lumpur's perspective.
The conflict through Malaysian eyes
Malaysia's role in the southern Thailand conflict is not new. The southern Thai
provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat now embroiled in conflict were once
part of the Patani sultanate. They were included as part of the Siamese kingdom
in 1902 and later became provinces of the Thai nation-state.
Ethnically speaking, the people of southern Thailand are Malay and share more
cultural characteristics with Malaysia than with Thailand. Despite this common
historical bond, the Malaysian government has refrained from backing the
militants in southern Thailand. Even in the years after World War II, when
Malay nationalism was at its peak and there was much public pressure, Malaysia
denied support for the insurgents.
This is of course not to say that there was no assistance for the southern Thai
rebels in Malaysia at all. Many of the guerrilla groups have had bases in
Malaysia, especially in the state of Kelantan. Apart from a few blitz
operations, the Malaysian government has been diffident about proactively
cracking down on supporters and sympathizers on its soil. This hesitancy can be
attributed to Kuala Lumpur's disillusionment with Thailand's treatment of the
Malays in the southern provinces. The continued heavy-handed response to the
insurgency by the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, despite
statements to the contrary, has made Malaysia cautious about offering complete
It is not in Malaysia's interest to support the militants. Backing the rebels
would inevitably mean an increase in violence and economic repercussions on
both sides of the border. Thus far, border trade between the two countries has
been reasonably unaffected by the insurgency. Many of the business dealings
take place via Hat Yai in Songkhla province, a place relatively free of
violence. Hence closing the border with Thailand is not an option for Malaysia.
Instead, Kuala Lumpur's strategy is to help with the economic development of
Thailand's southern provinces. In this respect, the two countries signed a
Joint Development Strategy (JDS) in 2004 that covers areas such as trade,
tourism, agriculture, energy, education, human resources and disaster relief.
Malaysia would also not want to get involved in the southern Thailand conflict
because of its role in other regional insurgencies. Malaysia is playing an
important facilitator task in the peace process between the Philippine
government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It is leading the
International Monitoring Team in Mindanao. Malaysia is also part of the Aceh
Monitoring Mission, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of
the memorandum of understanding between the Indonesian government and Gerakan
Aceh Merdeka (GAM, the Free Aceh Movement). Given these Malaysian efforts to
forge peace in the region, it is not in its advantage to support an insurgent
So what explains statements from Malaysian leaders such as former prime
minister Mahathir Mohamad criticizing Thailand's response to the conflict?
Malaysia is currently the chair of the Organization of Islamic Conferences
(OIC) and wants to increase its profile among the Islamic countries. OIC
statements censuring Bangkok over the strife in southern Thailand need to be
seen in this light.
There are also domestic considerations that Malaysia needs to take into
account. The strong military answer to the conflict by the Thaksin government
has led to rising calls in Malaysia to intervene on behalf of the Malays.
Malaysian activists have also protested outside the Thai Embassy in Kuala
Lumpur and called for a boycott of Thai goods.
Domestic pressure has also come in the form of the Malaysian opposition party,
Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which has made statements advising the Thai
government to negotiate with the insurgents. With both the ruling and
opposition parties contesting for the ethnic-Malay vote, statements on the
southern Thai conflict by some Malaysian leaders is meant more for a domestic
Progress in bilateral relations
There has been some improvement in bilateral relations over the past few
months. In late November, Thaksin and Mahathir met in Thailand. They came to an
understanding to refrain from megaphone diplomacy and also agreed that autonomy
is not a solution for Thailand's southern provinces. In the months after,
operational assistance between the two countries has picked up.
They are now working together over the issue of insurgents using
Malaysian-registered mobile phones to trigger bombs in southern Thailand.
Whether this level of cooperation will be enhanced depends on Bangkok's future
response to the conflict. A purely military reaction will only seek to distance
Malaysia, an ally it needs to resolve the conflict.
The Thai government's hardline response to the insurgency in southern Thailand
has put Malaysia in an awkward position. Kuala Lumpur is playing a delicate
balancing act between domestic pressures to intervene in the conflict and wider
regional considerations to refrain from interfering into the internal affairs
of its neighbor. It is unlikely that Kuala Lumpur will directly support the
insurgents in southern Thailand. What is more likely is Malaysia using the
conflict to improve its image domestically and in the wider Muslim world.
S P Harish is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defense and
Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.