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RIGHTS: Unease Grows Over Thai Refugees in Malaysia

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Sep 15 2005 (IPS) - Uneasiness is steadily spreading through the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra as ethnic disaffection in Thailand’s southern provinces threatens to stain the country’s laudable record in dealing with refugees.

Thaksins’s unease, over the flight of 131 Thai citizens of Muslim-Malay ethnic origin, for asylum in neighbouring Malaysia, was more than evident during a meeting of South-east Asian leaders this week in New York.

”Without coordination and headquarter’s guidelines, a U.N. agency went out of its way and allowed itself to be trapped into local political exploitation that could lead to international misunderstanding,” Thaksin said, Tuesday, in a pointed reference to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

He also did not spare, predominantly Muslim, Malaysia for entertaining the asylum seekers since Aug. 30. ”Countries in the (South-east Asian) community must be prepared to create an air of cooperation, not mistrust,” the Thai premier said during the second ASEAN-U.N. summit.

Both Thailand and Malaysia are founding members of the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). The other countries of this regional grouping are Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam.

U.N. officials, who spoke to IPS on condition of anonymity, suggest otherwise: that the refugee agency was following standard practice of interviewing the men, women and children who had fled Thailand in search of asylum in Malaysia.

Each asylum seeker from southern Thailand’s Narathiwat province is being interviewed by UNHCR staff and a decision about the merits of each case will be made in a week to 10 days.

”Those Muslims fled because the people in the south are losing faith in the government,” Kraisak Choonhavan, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the Thai Senate, told IPS. ”The use of violence has alienated the people.”

The villagers reportedly fled soon after a highly-respected imam (Islamic religious leader) from their village was killed, allegedly by uniformed men.

”Since the government imposed an emergency decree (in July), there is growing abuse in the south. There is sufficient reason for the people to feel unsafe and flee,” Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, said in an interview. ”It is natural to seek sanctuary.”

But the flight of these 131 Malay-Muslims from predominantly Buddhist Thailand is politically damaging to the Thaksin administration for another reason-it marks a glaring reversal of roles involving Thailand and refugees fleeing conflict and terror in this region.

Since 1975, Thailand has been the land of hope for over 1.5 million people who fled their native Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia due to the raging wars and oppressive governments. Bangkok let these victims of violence lead a temporary life of security in asylum, though not being a signatory to the 1951 U.N. refugee convention.

Currently, the border Thailand shares with Burma to its west offers a reminder of this humanitarian gesture by Bangkok for nearly three decades. It is dotted with 10 camps housing nearly 140,000 men, women and children who have fled military-ruled Burma due to government crackdowns and ethnic conflicts.

No wonder some analysts have begun to label the case of the 131 Thai asylum seekers a ”national disgrace”, since it marks the first time that Thai citizens are being forced to flee due to persecution at home.

”Will the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra be the first to spawn refugees, reversing the history of a country that has given asylum to hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese and Burmese fleeing leaderships beyond the brink?” asked Anuraj Manibhandu in a recent column in the ‘Bangkok Post’ newspaper.

Senator Kraisak feels that such a scenario may very well be the case, given that many more Malay-Muslims have already fled the region and are many aiming to follow. ”The situation is getting out of hand and the government will end up destroying the political culture we had built in Thailand – being a place where refugees come to-not go from.”

The violence in the country’s three southern-most provinces near the Malaysian border has already claimed 1,037 lives, the Thai police told the government-run Thai News Agency this week.

It began in January last year, following an attack on an army camp by suspected Malay-Muslim insurgents. Bangkok has blamed Muslim separatist groups in the region for reviving a conflict between government troops and the Muslim minority that has gone through cycles of bloodshed during the 1970s and the decades before.

The disaffection of Malay-Muslims in the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat goes back to 1902, when these provinces, once part of the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, were annexed by Siam, as Thailand was then known.

While the suspected militants have been accused of killing civilians, Buddhist monks, Muslim villagers, bureaucrats and teachers, government troops have been responsible for the gruesome deaths, from suffocation, of 78 Muslim boys and men while in military custody.

In July, after failing with a range of options to contain the violence, the government imposed a draconian emergency decree to strengthen Thaksin’s hands and give free rein to nearly 30,000 troops in dealing suspected militants.

”The government sees this problem as a law enforcement one,” says Thitinan, the political scientist. ”But that will only result in more persecution and more people fleeing.”

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