The flight of 131 ethnic-Malay Thais from the conflict zones of southern Thailand into neighboring Kelantan state in Malaysia in August led to a war of words between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Thailand insisted that all of them be repatriated but Malaysia maintained that it would do so only after a rights guarantee.
The situation has simmered after Malaysia recently returned one of the refugees, a suspected militant. Relations between the two countries now seem to be on the mend, with officials on both sides expressing confidence over cooperating with each other and working together to resolve the discord. This incident marks the latest in a series of arguments between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur over the strife in southern Thailand. Over the past two years, such incidents as the Krue Se debacle in April 2004, in which 32 were killed in the mosque in a standoff between police and suspected insurgents, and the Tak Bai tragedy later that year, which resulted in the deaths of 85 demonstrators, have derailed efforts to increase goodwill between both sides.
Overtly, Malaysia has maintained that it will not interfere into the internal affairs of Thailand, and yet its leaders make comments over the situation in Thailand's restive south. At times, Kuala Lumpur is perceived to be cooperating well with the Thai authorities but at other times, it appears to be making things difficult for Bangkok. This rather incongruous position has led some to allege that Malaysia may be supporting the insurgency in the southern Thai provinces. In order to understand Malaysia's actions, the conflict needs to be examined from Kuala Lumpur's perspective.
Malaysia's role in the southern Thailand conflict is not new. The southern Thai provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat now embroiled in conflict were once part of the Patani sultanate. They were included as part of the Siamese kingdom in 1902 and later became provinces of the Thai nation-state.
Ethnically speaking, the people of southern Thailand are Malay and share more cultural characteristics with Malaysia than with Thailand. Despite this common historical bond, the Malaysian government has refrained from backing the militants in southern Thailand. Even in the years after World War II, when Malay nationalism was at its peak and there was much public pressure, Malaysia denied support for the insurgents.
This is of course not to say that there was no assistance for the southern Thai rebels in Malaysia at all. Many of the guerrilla groups have had bases in Malaysia, especially in the state of Kelantan. Apart from a few blitz operations, the Malaysian government has been diffident about proactively cracking down on supporters and sympathizers on its soil. This hesitancy can be attributed to Kuala Lumpur's disillusionment with Thailand's treatment of the Malays in the southern provinces. The continued heavy-handed response to the insurgency by the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, despite statements to the contrary, has made Malaysia cautious about offering complete cooperation.
It is not in Malaysia's interest to support the militants. Backing the rebels would inevitably mean an increase in violence and economic repercussions on both sides of the border. Thus far, border trade between the two countries has been reasonably unaffected by the insurgency. Many of the business dealings take place via Hat Yai in Songkhla province, a place relatively free of violence. Hence closing the border with Thailand is not an option for Malaysia.
Instead, Kuala Lumpur's strategy is to help with the economic development of Thailand's southern provinces. In this respect, the two countries signed a Joint Development Strategy (JDS) in 2004 that covers areas such as trade, tourism, agriculture, energy, education, human resources and disaster relief.
Malaysia would also not want to get involved in the southern Thailand conflict because of its role in other regional insurgencies. Malaysia is playing an important facilitator task in the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It is leading the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao. Malaysia is also part of the Aceh Monitoring Mission, which is responsible for monitoring the implementation of the memorandum of understanding between the Indonesian government and Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM, the Free Aceh Movement). Given these Malaysian efforts to forge peace in the region, it is not in its advantage to support an insurgent group.
So what explains statements from Malaysian leaders such as former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad criticizing Thailand's response to the conflict? Malaysia is currently the chair of the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) and wants to increase its profile among the Islamic countries. OIC statements censuring Bangkok over the strife in southern Thailand need to be seen in this light.
There are also domestic considerations that Malaysia needs to take into account. The strong military answer to the conflict by the Thaksin government has led to rising calls in Malaysia to intervene on behalf of the Malays. Malaysian activists have also protested outside the Thai Embassy in Kuala Lumpur and called for a boycott of Thai goods.
Domestic pressure has also come in the form of the Malaysian opposition party, Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which has made statements advising the Thai government to negotiate with the insurgents. With both the ruling and opposition parties contesting for the ethnic-Malay vote, statements on the southern Thai conflict by some Malaysian leaders is meant more for a domestic audience.
There has been some improvement in bilateral relations over the past few months. In late November, Thaksin and Mahathir met in Thailand. They came to an understanding to refrain from megaphone diplomacy and also agreed that autonomy is not a solution for Thailand's southern provinces. In the months after, operational assistance between the two countries has picked up.
They are now working together over the issue of insurgents using Malaysian-registered mobile phones to trigger bombs in southern Thailand. Whether this level of cooperation will be enhanced depends on Bangkok's future response to the conflict. A purely military reaction will only seek to distance Malaysia, an ally it needs to resolve the conflict.
The Thai government's hardline response to the insurgency in southern Thailand has put Malaysia in an awkward position. Kuala Lumpur is playing a delicate balancing act between domestic pressures to intervene in the conflict and wider regional considerations to refrain from interfering into the internal affairs of its neighbor. It is unlikely that Kuala Lumpur will directly support the insurgents in southern Thailand. What is more likely is Malaysia using the conflict to improve its image domestically and in the wider Muslim world.
S P Harish is associate research fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.