Kuala Lumpur – Nearly a month after they crossed illegally into the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan, sparking a diplomatic row between Thailand andMalaysia, the fate of the 131 southern Thais remains in a limbo. Malaysia, caught in a double bind, has yet to decide what to do with the unwelcome visitors. Its attempt to pass the buck to the UN refugee agency appears to have failed after the latter declared that it would stay out of the debate over their status.
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak said on Sept 28 that his government will not hand over the 131 people from southern Thailand until their human rights are assured.
"We will not release them to Thailand except if we have an assurance that their human rights are not being infringed upon by the Thai government.
"We have not decided what to do (with them)...this depends on proof against them later and whatever assurance of their future," he said.
Mr Najib said the 131 are all Thai citizens and they are being detained "at a safe place according to provisions under the immigration laws".
He said whatever decision to be taken by Malaysia on their status, such as sending them to a third country, would be based on the principle of human rights and the rule of law.
Due to historical links and close blood ties, many Malaysians, including their government, are sympathetic to the plight of the Thai-Muslims in southern Thailand, which is gripped by an increasingly violent insurgency.
However, Malaysia is reluctant to declare the 131 as refugees since the move may encourage an even bigger exodus of Thai-Muslims.
Mr Najib's comments came after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said that it would stay out of the debate over the status of the 131 Thais since Malaysia had provided them with adequate protection.
Spokesman Ron Redmond said: "We believe any public declaration on these individual cases would just complicate an already difficult situation."
In Bangkok, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon welcomed Mr Redmond's statement. He said that if the agency had announced a decision on the status of the 131 based only on one-sided information, that might undermine efforts being worked out by the Thai and Malaysian governments.
Thailand had been angry with Malaysia for permitting the UN agency to interview the 131 southern Thais. The Thai government is afraid that any form of protection from the UNHCR would automatically "internationalise" the insurgency problem in southern Thailand.
* KL wants guarantees for 131 Thais (Bangkok Post, Sept 29)
* KL says it won't release 'refugees' (The Nation, Sept 29)
* Malaysia won’t release 131 Thais without human rights assurance (Bernama, Sept 28)