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Southern unrest: Why Thailand needs Malaysia's help

Updated On: Oct 04, 2005

Bangkok – Given their different views on the unrest in southern Thailand, it's no secret that there is no love lost between the current Thai and Malaysian governments. However, whether the Thaksin government likes it or not, "Malaysia remains the most important player in the southern crisis", says a commentary in Thailand's The Nation. 

     Mr Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor and columnist at the English-language newspaper, describes the existence of good relations between the two countries' leaders as a "prerequisite for dealing with the sensitive situation in the South".
     In the 1990s, Thai-Malaysian relations were "excellent", thanks to the strong friendship and trust that existed between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and his Thai counterpart, Mr Chuan Leekpai. The close cooperation between the two countries enabled them to crack down on radical Muslims. 
     When leaders of an outlawed Muslim group, Al-Arqam, fled to Chiang Mai, Thai security forces arrested them and extradited them to Malaysia. On their part, the Malaysian authorities arrested several Thai separatist leaders who were operating along the Thai-Malaysian border and sent them back to Thailand
     However, such cooperation has been less frequent under the Thaksin government. The current leaders, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Malaysian Premier Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, "do not have the kind of rapport their predecessors enjoyed. Their body language and politics just do not mix".
     "The current level of mutual trust is too low to facilitate the kind of collaboration witnessed in the past decades when both sides helped to root out the communist insurgency along their 647-kilometre border," Mr Kavi writes.  
     "As far as the Thai side is concerned, the situation in the South has much to do with Malaysia's attitude and historical animosity. Thai bureaucrats are suspicious that Malaysia wants the southern provinces to return to its fold."
     Mr Mahathir's repeated call for autonomy in the three southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani has also raised eyebrows in Bangkok
     Despite Thailand's misgivings, the reality is that "Malaysia's eminent position in the Muslim world can influence the international perception of the southern crisis". 
     Mr Kavi argues that as violence in southern Thailand spirals, the stakes have also become higher for Malaysia. "In the past few months, heavy accusations have been levelled across the border, implicating Malaysia for supporting the militants and providing them with sanctuary."
     As a country which prides itself as a moderate Muslim-majority nation, the last thing that Malaysia wants is to be labelled as a haven for Muslim militants. Hence, it is to Malaysia's interest, too, to help end the southern insurgency.  
     Malaysia is expected to raise the southern situation during the Asean Summit in December in Kuala Lumpur – something that worries Thailand very much. 
     "Malaysia has repeatedly said that Asean must have the courage to discuss problems affecting Asean members. If the issue is raised, it could affect the grouping's unity…It is about time that Thailand woke up and accepted the harsh realities down South,” Mr Kavi says.   

* Southern crisis: Is there a way out (The Nation, Oct 3)