Bangkok - The Thai government recently dismissed claims by the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo) that it had conducted secret talks with Bangkok as a publicity stunt. Now, the Thai Foreign Ministry has accused Pulo of being behind the flight of 131 Thai-Muslims from the southern province of Narathiwat into Kelantan in northern Malaysia.
Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, a Foreign Ministry spokesman, cited intelligence reports as saying that 10 leading Pulo members had travelled to Kelantan in early August and more followed on Aug 25 - less than a week before the villagers' flight began.
It is the first time that a government agency has named an organisation as being behind the Aug 30 illegal border crossings into Malaysia. Previously, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and armed forces commanders had said that unnamed militant leaders were the source of the problem and were trying to turn the violence in the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat into an international issue.
Mr Sihasak said the Pulo members had spread rumours in Malaysia that major violence was about to erupt in the deep South in the hope that Malaysians would tell their Thai relatives to cross the border to seek shelter in Kelantan.
Pulo has also set up the Pattani Human Rights Organisation and an Internet website as a front to get the Geneva-based United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR) to probe the matter.
"Pulo's move was aimed at tarnishing the country's image," Mr Sihasak said.
The UNHCR earlier this week began to interview the Thai-Muslims now in Kelantan.
In a commentary in The Nation, writer Supalak Gananakhundee said Mr Thaksin himself had internationalised the issue when he sent a "blurred signal" to Kuala Lumpur that the group of 131 included militants. The claim and the subsequent exchange of words between the two capitals led Malaysia to bring in the UNHCR.
"Now that the United Nations is involved, the issue can snowball into a bigger controversy. From what started off as an immigration technicality that could have been handled by agencies at the local level, the 131 Thai-Muslims taking shelter in northern Malaysia have effectively become an international issue, putting Thailand and Malaysia, once again, at loggerheads," Mr Supalak said.
In the worst-case scenario for Thailand, the UNHCR establishes a case for political asylum on the grounds that the Thai-Muslims are being oppressed by a Buddhist-dominated government. And Thailand would be regarded internationally as a country which could not provide safety for its own citizens.
Mr Supalak said: "Thaksin and his Foreign Minister, Kantathi Suphamongkhorn, need to learn more about how to deal with Malaysia. A simple phone call cannot end bilateral problems at a time when politicians in Malaysia want to raise their profiles internationally and the Islamic world. Malaysia is now the chairman of Asean and the organisation of Islamic Conference. Bangkok's missteps will only turn into international credit for Kuala Lumpur."
* Pulo gets rap for 'refugees' (Bangkok Post, Sept 8)
* South in world spotlight (The Nation, Sept 7)