Malaysia has told Thailand it is willing to assist Bangkok in finding long-term solutions for peace in its troubled southern provinces. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak made the comments in a meeting with his Thai counterpart Yingluck Shinawatra, during her first official trip to Malaysia.
Peace and Reconciliation
In 2004, a violent insurgency erupted in Thailand's three southern-most provinces, Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat. These three provinces border the Malaysian states of Kelantan, Perak, Perlis and Kedah.
The residents of the southern Thai provinces are themselves Malay Muslims, and extremist groups in the region oppose the rule of the Thai state.
Mr Najib said Bangkok should focus on creating greater participation for the southern Thai people in matters such as the economy, education and religion.
He said Yingluck had requested Malaysia’s cooperation in helping Thailand find a durable peaceful solution for the south.
But he added: "We both agreed that this is a domestic matter for Thailand and that the people in the south must not seek a separate state."
"They must reject violence and extremism, be loyal Thai citizens and be loyal to the King of Thailand."
Speaking alongside Mr Najib in a joint press conference at Perdana Putra, Ms Yingluck said: "Thailand firmly believes that moderation is the key to peace and development."
"This will not only promote economic possibilities for the people along the border and surrounding areas but also enhance regional connectivity."
Mr Najib noted that the two leaders "also touched on the problems of dual citizenship between our two countries and we agreed that we should compare our database so we can resolve this problem".
Many living along the border between Malaysia and Thailand have relatives on both sides. Border crossings are common, and it is commonly alleged that patrolling is lax. It is unknown how many people currently possess dual nationality, though some estimates place the number at 100,000 or more.
During their meeting on Monday, Mr Najib and Ms Yingluck also agreed to enhance economic cooperation in seven major industries - halal trade, automobiles, rubber, food security, energy, tourism, plus oil and gas.
Report: Malaysia willing to help Thailand find solution for south [The Nation, 21 Feb 2012]
According to an editorial in the Bangkok post, Mr Najib's statements were significant because some Malaysian political figures have previously effectively blamed Thai authorities for the southern violence - and privately encouraged the separatist demands of militant groups.
Conversely, Thai security officials have in the past claimed that the southern extremists were financed by businesses in Malaysia.
But although Mr Najib has said there could be a future role for Malaysia in the troubled region, that role is far from clear. Separatist groups who want independence from Thailand often look towards Malaysia, but Mr Najib made it clear that Malaysia recognises Thai sovereignty over the provinces.
Analysis: KL has a role in South peace [Bangkok Post, 22 Feb 2012]
However, Muslims in Thailand have welcomed Malaysia's willingness to help find a long-term solution, according to a report in the New Straits Times.
Narathiwat Islamic Religious Council president Abdul Razak Halim said most residents in his area are grateful for Malaysia's concern.
"Most people are tired of the regular shootings and bombings, and just want to carry on with their lives," he said.
Sungai Golok assemblyman Che Arong Che Aly said peace in the region would bring security not only to Thais but also Malaysians, especially those living along the common border. "Muslims, especially, have been hard hit as many of them were victims of the violence and many of their businesses have had to close down."
Pattani tourist guide Mohamad Sori Abdullah said Malaysia's move to help the southern provinces showed that it was concerned about the happenings there.
"I believe the Malaysian government does not want to see the problem continue for many more years as it is also dangerous for Malaysians travelling to the region."
Report: Thai Muslims welcome offer to help end unrest [New Straits Times, 22 Feb 2012]
Background of Conflict
Some level of unrest has existed in the three southern provinces of Thailand for decades, but 2004 saw a massive escalation in violence.
Separatist groups claim the region was once an independent Malay sultanate and the Thais are colonial occupiers, though Thailand argues it has always had sovereignty over the area. The three provinces have been internationally recognised as part of modern Thailand since the country's borders were established.
The present insurgency erupted during former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's first term in office, and many in the Thai south blame Mr Thaksin for mismanaging the crisis. Ms Yingluck's government thus faces huge challenges in winning the trust of residents in the southern provinces, due to bad memories of her brother's leadership.
During the 2011 elections, Ms Yingluck's Pheu Thai party promised a greater degree of autonomy for the south, but still failed to win any polls in those provinces.