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Kuala Lumpur assistance to Bangkok on South Thailand: Talking at cross purposes?

Updated On: Feb 16, 2007

Just after what was hailed as a diplomatic triumph, clouds have descended in the aftermath of Malaysian PM Abdullah Badawi’s visit to Thailand to discuss with PM Surayud Chulanont on how to tackle the insurgency in the border provinces of Thailand.

However good Thai-Malaysian ties have become, Thailand is adamant that the peace and reconciliation in the South remains an internal issue and Malaysia should not get its hopes too high for a chance of intervention. The Malaysian media has painted the bilateral relationship in glowing terms, and the Bernama reported Malaysia PM Badawi as saying on Monday, “This is the 50th year of diplomatic ties...we have had good bilateral relations and I hope for another 50 years of good ties.” In addition, shortly after arriving back in Malaysia, PM Badawi told the media that “Malaysia [was] well placed to be the mediator to help Thailand negotiate with the Muslim separatists in the restive South [as it] had the capacity and ability to mediate on the issue as it understood the situation.” He added, “Moreover, we know the separatist groups, in the sense that they are Muslims, of Malay descent and Malaysia has good relations with Thailand.”

Expectations were high given PM Surayud’s commitment to restoring the peace and “attaining a permanent solution to the Muslim insurgency” that PM Badawi seemed to be anticipating a formal request from Thailand. The New Straits Times quoted PM Badawi as saying, “It is up to them to make a formal request for Malaysia to play a bigger role in helping resolve the issue there.”  Even on the Thai side, the Bangkok Post reported Defence Minister Boonrawd Somtas expressly welcoming “an offer from Malaysia to help mediate with Thai separatists along their common border”, saying, “Our prime minister has told his foreign minister to hold talks with his Malaysian counterpart and work out the details of the cooperation… They must also come up with an official written proposal.”

This is now not the case. Thai Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram has promptly come out to deny any such request, saying that “the remarks by Mr Abdullah as carried by the Bernama... may have been misquoted”, the Bangkok Post noted. Nitya added, “We are checking with Kuala Lumpur. There is no plan for such mediation that would necessitate any request.”

It is difficult to know what to make of all these conflicting stances. Was it purely miscommunication and misunderstanding by Malaysia or a retraction on the part of the Thai government? With yet another “flip-flop” from Thailand, it does not seem that the Southern conflict will ever get resolved any time soon.

This also casts doubts over what forms of future bilateral partnerships in the South will take. Already border walls are being discussed and “the construction of the second bridge crossing Sungai Golok, linking Buketa in Thailand and Bukit Bunga in Malaysia, has started while Thailand has sent students from the southern provinces for training programmes offered by GiatMara”, Bernama noted. In addition, 500 residents on each side of the Malaysia-Thai border will soon undergo biometric testing to resolve dual-citizenship issues. The rebuff from Thailand will probably jeopardise Thailand's Education Ministry’s plan “to send teachers to teach the Thai language to children of Thai workers in Malaysia”.

Given the yet unclear policy from their own government, and the cracks that seemed to be appearing within the top echelon of the Thai leadership (see next story) it will be unsurprising if Southern Thais fall into greater despair and the insurgents carry out even more violent attacks. (15 February 2007)

Sources:

Malaysia mediation offer welcomed (Bangkok Post, 15 February 2007)

Government turns away Malaysia mediation offer (Bangkok Post, 15 February 2007)

KL sees light at the end of South tunnel (Bangkok Post, 14 February 2007)

PM: Hearts and minds not being won in South (Bangkok Post, 14 February 2007)

Badawi's mission in Thailand (Jakarta Post, 14 February 2007)

PM: Malaysia awaiting formal request for help (New Straits Times, 14 February 2007)

Abdullah's Peace Initiative in Thailand Receives Support (Bernama, 14 February 2007)

Thai-Malaysia biometric testing for dual citizenship to begin soon (Star, 14 February 2007)

PM: Malaysia suited to mediate on Thai south (Bernama, 14 February 2007)

Editorial: Mending fences (New Straits Times, 14 February 2007)

Thailand Wants To Send Teachers to Malaysia (Bernama, 14 February 2007)

Closer Ties As Malaysia, Thailand Celebrate 50th Anniversary (Bernama, 14 February 2007)

Malaysia is ready to mediate truce with separatists (Nation, 13 February 2007)