Mon, Nov 07, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur split over Thai Muslims

The row has highlighted serious differences between the two nations' handling of the rebellion in Thailand's southern provinces

AFP , KUALA LUMPUR

Shocking by the polite standards of Southeast Asian diplomacy, the barbs and accusations traded recently between Malaysia and Thailand have exposed a major rift over the Muslim insurgency on their border.

At the height of the row last month, Thai Foreign Minister Kantathi Suphamongkhon said he had stopped speaking with Malaysia, accusing his counterpart Syed Hamid Albar of grandstanding over 131 Thai Muslims whose flight over the border triggered a diplomatic tussle.

Syed Hamid had enraged the Thais by saying they should be more "mature" over a consumer boycott called by Malaysian activists, which Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra reacted to in characteristically angry fashion.

Both sides stepped back last week, with Malaysian officials saying they realized there was no sense in poisoning the entire relationship over the fate of the displaced Thai Muslims, who said they feared for their lives in their homeland.

Thailand has insisted that they return, but predominantly Muslim Malaysia says it has a duty to protect Muslim refugees from southern Thailand -- a stance which has wide public backing here.

"I think gradually there is understanding that we should manage the problem," Malaysia's Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said last Monday after meeting his Thai counterpart Chidchai Vanasathidya.

"We should not allow the problem of the 131 to be blown out of proportion and ... it should not spill over into the other areas in terms of overall bilateral relations."

But despite the detente, political observers said their worst row in recent memory has highlighted serious differences between Thailand and Malaysia over the handling of the rebellion in Thailand's Muslim-majority southern provinces.

And despite Bangkok's attempts to fend off outside interference, the August flight of the 131 men, women and children has blasted the issue onto the international stage.

Former Thai ambassador to the UN, Asda Jayanama, said Thailand had itself to blame for allowing the issue to slip out of its grasp and draw the attention of the UN refugee agency and the Organization of the Islamic Conference -- the world's biggest Muslim grouping which Malaysia currently chairs.

"It was mishandled in a sense. Diplomacy was done at the highest level, the prime ministerial level. It need not have been that high," he said. "If you make a mistake, it's difficult to undo."

Relations between the two countries are improving now that the "megaphone diplomacy" has been lowered, Asda said.

"The diplomatic bridge has been burnt, it hasn't collapsed ... it's still there, but it's all charred, it's all black," he said.

Thaksin's management of the hostile south has been widely criticized as clumsy and insensitive, with too much use of military might instead of more subtle tactics like consultation, inclusion and economic advancement.

Bilveer Singh, associate professor in political science at the National University of Singapore, said Malaysia has been "very irritated" by Thaksin's barn-storming approach which has only worsened the violence.

And Thailand's claim that Muslim separatists met in Malaysia to plan attacks on its territory has cast doubt over Malaysia's cooperation in the US-led "war on terrorism," he said.

"That took the situation to a point of no return because it put the Malaysian government in a very bad light," Singh said.

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