Kuala Lumpur - The 131 Thai Muslims, whose illegal entry into Malaysia in August sparked a diplomatic row between the two neighbours, will be going home soon. A meeting between Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi and his Thai counterpart, Mr Thaksin Shinawatra, succeeded in ending the impasse over the issue, reported the New Straits Times (NST).
Preparations are being made for the group to travel to the southern Thai province of Narathiwat after a by-election in the border state of Kelantan on Dec 6, sources told the Malaysian newspaper.
Mr Abdullah and Mr Thaksin discussed the issue when they met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Busan, South Korea, recently. A visit to Bangkok by former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his closed-door meeting with Mr Thaksin and former premier Anand Panyarachun also helped both sides to have a better understanding of each other's position.
According to the NST, the decision to send the Thai-Muslims home was made despite their reluctance to return to Thailand. Nine out of the 131 Thais are reported to be wanted by the Thai authorities for involvement in the violence that has rocked southern Thailand for almost two years.
Sources told the newspaper that Malaysia agreed to send them home only after it was given an assurance by the Thai government on the group's safety.
"Our authorities are now waiting for clearance from their Thai counterparts, before fixing an exact date for their repatriation," one source said.
The Thai-Muslims are now being held at the Immigration Department's detention camp in Terengganu. They claimed that they had fled their homes in southernThailand for fear of persecution by Thai authorities pursuing separatist militants.
In a commentary on the violence in southern Thailand, Mr Razali Ismail, a Malaysian who is now a UN special envoy to Myanmar, acknowledged that "there are considerable symphaties in Malaysia" for Thai-Muslims.
"The concentration of Muslims stretching from southern Philippines, Indonesia to Malaysia, southern Thailand and pockets in Indochina makes this area a natural hinterland. Any attempt to blatantly force assimilation including economic monopoly will automatically evoke concerns and percolate to the body politic of a country like Malaysia. But this does not amount to supporting violence in any way or that Malaysia will have any truck with insurgents.
"But Malaysia truly wants to see more economic development and cultural liberalisation in the four provinces (Satul, Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani) in Thailand. What benefits Thailand will be a boon to the economic growth of the (northern) states of Perlis, Penang, Kedah and Kelantan, too."
But Mr Razali said he doubts that such a scenario will be possible anytime soon - given Mr Thaksin's preference for force in dealing with the southern unrest.
* 131 Thais finally go home (New Straits Times, Dec 1)
* Bangkok shouldn't be too quick to blame us (New Straits Times, Nov 30)