Malaysia in a diplomatic pickle over 131 Thai illegal aliens

Updated On: Sep 09, 2005

Kuala Lumpur - Given the historical links between Malays in Malaysia and their Muslim counterparts in southern Thailand, it is not surprising that many Malaysians - including the government and media - view the illegal entry of 131 Thai-Muslims into  Kelantan in a sympathetic light. The Malaysian media, especially the Malay-language press, have been running stories about how Muslims in Thailand's deep South are living in fear of the security forces and of the Thaksin's government's preference for force in dealing with the insurgency problem. 

    Still, the presence of the 131 Thai-Muslims has "put Malaysia in a spot so sticky that perhaps only astute diplomacy can resolve the issue", said Mr Syed Nadzri, in his regular column Hard Copy, in the New Straits Times. 
    He noted that the 131 Thais "have technically crossed the border illegally and technically they face deportation". "But when you take into account other factors - such as historical links, close blood ties, and most of all, humanitarian elements - the problem takes on a new dimension.  
    The several options open to the Malaysian government all come with their own set of problems.
     Malaysia could grant the 131 Thai-Muslims political asylum -except that the government has never done it before, not to rebel fighters from Aceh or to Rohingya runaways from Myanmar.  
     Malaysia is also not in a hurry to declare them as refugees - even though the 131 seem to fit the bill - since that "could well open the floodgates for an exodus as well as a logistical nightmare". 
     Even providing the 131 with "temporary shelter" could give rise to problems since Malaysia could be accused of trying to harbour terrorists. The Thai government had alleged that the 131 included some Muslim militants. 
    A Malaysia diplomat said: "It is a sticky situation. If we allow them in, even for temporary shelter, it might encourage others to join and create an exodus. An exodus is what we don't need because apart from logistical problems, it might create an opportunity for undesirables - whether criminals or militants - to slip through, too. This is not to mention the negative vibes it would create between the two close neighbours." 
    So, is there a way out, from the Malaysian vantage point? 
    In a commentary in the Malay-language Utusan Malaysia, journalist  Zulkiflee Bakar wrote that it is high time for Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to seekMalaysia's cooperation in ending the unrest in the Muslim-majority deep South. 
    He quoted a Malaysian diplomat as saying: "There are many things that we can do to help Thailand."  For example, Malaysia had earlier offered to send some of its own ulama (religious teachers) to southern Thailand to help reduce the Thai-Muslims' antipathy towards the Thaksin government. 
    Mr Zulkiflee doubts that Mr Thaksin is likely to seek Kuala Lumpur's assistance since the Thai Premier regards Malaysia as "siding" with Thai-Muslims in the deep South, many of whom he has labelled as "separatist supporters".  
    However, the writer added: "If there is truth in his (Mr Thaksin's) allegations that the separatists in Thailand are out to internationalise the conflict and he himself wishes to champion the cause of Muslims in the deep South, then he should not be afraid to seek Malaysia's cooperation - unless he has something to hide."

* Thai Muslims pose dilemma for Malaysia (New Straits Times, Sept 8)

* Thaksin needs to seek Kuala Lumpur's help (Utusan Malaysia, Sept 6)