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Oil, violence, and the scuffle for influence in southern Thailand

MALAYSIA-THAI RELATIONS ARE TEMPERED by an irreconciliable problem - the four Malay provinces of south Thailand - which Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur view through its national perspective, making a permanent solution all but impossible. When Britain demarcated its colonial borders with Thailand in 1897, Bangkok ceded sovereignty of Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan and Trengganu but retained Pattani, Narathiwat, Satun, Yala, the Malays in southern Thailand fought with Bangkok for a Muslim space in a Buddhist nation to this day. Bangkok tolerated it though in the main did little to correct the grievances. In the past five decades, especially after 1957 after Kuala Lumpur's independence from Britain, this plight of the southern Thai Malays attracted its attention. All post-independence Malaysian prime ministers - from Tengku Abdul Rahman to Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi - have had an important role in the southern Thai Malay convulsions since. None would talk about it, but the hidden Malaysian hand was clear. The Thai Malays, at that time, wanted to be in Malaysia. The Thai government in Bangkok wanted to preserve its territorial integrity.

The bilateral suspicions spring from this different perceptions. It lasts to this day. Malaysian intelligence and other officials had rushed to southern Thailand, the most recently last week, as the violence escalated. Once the Malaysian involvement was ill disguised. In the early 1970s, I met a Thai Malay rebel from the Pattani United Liberation Organisation or PULO in Kuala Lumpur, who had come to meet the then Prime Minister, Tun Abdul Razak, no less. She did not, but she saw lesser officials from his office. But at the time, her presence did not surprise. There was open talk of the several Thai Malay rebel groups vying for Malaysian support, working their way through numerous UMNO officials. One unmentioned foreign policy view was support for minority Malays in foreign countries fighting for their own space, if not independence.

It was the Tengku in the early 1960s who persuaded the Achenese fighting for independence from Jakarta to transfer its government-in-exile from Holland to Malaysia: its ambassador, in his 80s, lives in quiet retirement in a town outside Kuala Lumpur. With him came 10,000 Achinese, peopled in the Felda agricultural schemes. Kuala Lumpur had also encouraged the Muslim Moros in southern Philippines to secede from its government in Manila, and allowed about 100,000 of them to settle in Sabah. But this interest is half-hearted. Less than four decades later, Kuala Lumpur pulled the plug, sending back Moro and Achinese rebels to certain death or continued rebellion; among the leaders it deserted were Nur Misuari and Hashim Selamat. There is a suggestion that Kuala Lumpur's interest in south Thailand is mired in its political problems with PAS, and therefore one of imminent danger to the Thai Malays, if this equation should change.

There was once a bilateral agreement between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur to allow Malaysian forces to cross into Thailand in 'hot pursuit' operations against Malayan Communist Party remnant; and for Thai armed forces pursuing its Muslim rebels. But that was abrogated in 1976. In the 1990s, the MCP formally surrendered. Bangkok continues to insist that the Thai Muslim rebels can operate at will because they have sanctuary across the border. There is truth in this. Familial ties exist between families across the border. In the 1970s, Thailand formally objected when Tengku Ahmad Rithaudeen was appinted deputy defence minister, on the grounds that his Thai relatives were immured in the separatist movement. Indeed, his uncle, once an UMNO MP, was the eminense grise of the separatists, a son of privilege, a class mate of a future Thai prime minister. But at that time, such differences could be sorted out by talking through by the leaders. Not now.

In the present escalation of violence in southern Thailand, which began in 2001, three different strands came into play. The Thai Malays realised the wealth that would accrue from oil and gas, and looked not to a linkup with Malaysia, but as an independent nation able to stand on its own feet. The Thaksin Shinawantra government in Bangkok scales down its oil exploration activities in the area. Several oil exploration companies licenced to drill for oil have been ordered to scale down their activities. It wants to contain the south by deliberate threats and denial of its dues. It paints the violence as part of the larger global war on terror, to which Kuala Lumpur is in broad agreement. But it would not wash. One viewed it as reason to impose military rule, the other as an important plank to paint the PAS government in Kelantan, and its agencies, as complicit in Islamic fundamentalist extremism. Neither would have worked. For it does seem the Thai Malay is now courted by other powerful patrons; an influential group within see no future in linking with either Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok. Oil and gas is incentive enough for that.

Some sources in the south suggest that the Thai Malay response was the targetted killings: scattered but high profile robberies in 2002, killing of policemen in 2003, soldiers and monks in 2004. And he has help. It is done to an organised scheme for which Bangkok privately blames Kuala Lumpur but that seems unlikely. The fact of the matter is that Kuala Lumpur had gone into southern Thailand in recent years without a plan, and more serious hands had to be flown in to rescue them. To not put a fine point to it, the Thai Malays now seem organised. By whom we do not know, but the orchestrated attacks could not have been possible without it: on March 18, for instances, 40 places were set ablaze in Southern Thailand, a scale of which never seen before. It is therefore not surprising that southern Thailand is under martial law from January this year.

Southern Thailand is, in one sense, a Southeast version of Kashmir, for which India and Pakistan vie for control but the Kashmiris want independence, no less. Kuala Lumpur was initially dismissive of Mr Thaksin's request for a bilateral meeting in the Malaysian capital with Pak Lah, but to which it now agrees. The foreign minister, Dato' Seri Syed Hamid Albar, is clearly caught flat-footed: the Thai leader wants to discuss Malaysia is a training base and safe haven for Thai Malay separatists, that Kuala Lumpur is involved in southern Thailand far more heavily than it admits, and more frighteningly for Malaysia, that Thailand would ask the United States for help in this violent war on terror in the south. There is another unmentioned fear in Bangkok: that Malaysian support is part of an ill-thought out policy of pressuring Thailand to cut the Isthmus of Kra canal for its own foreign and security policy reasons: to keep both Singapore and Bangkok at bay.

Both Thailand and Malaysia mishandle the southern Thai problem. Neither has a clear idea of what is to be done. But both are active to push their half-baked schemes to the hilt. The Thai Malay has become a nutcracker whose pincers are held by Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. The escalating and co-ordinated violence is one aspect of it. The disinterest in both capitals to the fate of the Thai Malay is another. When Thailand rejoiced at the discovery of offshore oil and gas across its border with Malaysia, it allowed for good trimes for the Thai Malays. But Mr Thaksin's government seeks to be more nationalistic, in which the minorities are kept in their place, and makes a point of it by denying its Muslim minority in the south its due. It has caused a chain reaction, which shocked it. That can only be resolved by more dramatic measures. One comes to mind. But is its revered and aging king up to the rigors of an expanded journey to its southern provinces?

[A lightly-edited version appeared as my Chiaroscuro column in malaysiakini ( today, 06 April 2004]

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 6 April 2004

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