Malaysia’s Role in Thailand’s Southern Insurgency

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 5

Against a backdrop of escalating communal and sectarian violence and warnings that militants could extend their attacks to Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister General Surayud Chulanont met with his Malaysian counterpart Abdullah Badawi on February 11-12. The ongoing insurgency in the three southern provinces of Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani dominated the two leaders’ meetings. Malaysia plays an important role in efforts to improve security in Thailand’s south, as the three violence-wracked provinces abut the four Malaysian states of Kelantan, Perak, Perlis and Kedah. The majority of the population of Thailand’s three southern provinces is Malay-Muslim, and shares strong ethnic, religious, linguistic and cultural bonds with the people across the border. The 400-mile border separating the two countries is highly porous, and since January 2004 the Thai authorities have continually alleged that militants have crossed over into Malaysia after conducting attacks. At their meetings, Surayud and Abdullah agreed to improve security along the border and resolve the contentious issue of dual-nationality. Abdullah also offered Malaysia’s good offices to mediate the dispute, although there were conflicting reports over what Kuala Lumpur’s role would actually be in the coming months. Improved relations with Malaysia are an important strategy in the Surayud government’s attempts to extinguish the insurgency, but a resolution to the conflict rests squarely with Bangkok.

The Deterioration of Bilateral Relations from 2004-2006

At the initial outset of the violence in 2004, the government of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sought Malaysia’s help to contain the violence. From the Malaysian perspective, one of the root causes of the problem is poor socio-economic conditions, and in August 2004 the two countries agreed to initiate a Joint Development Strategy (JDS) aimed at boosting economic linkages between the three southern provinces and Malaysia’s more economically developed northern states. Later, Malaysia responded positively to a request from the Thai government to send Islamic scholars to the south to propagate a “correct” understanding of Islam.

Thai-Malaysian relations deteriorated significantly, however, over the Thaksin government’s heavy-handed attempts to defeat the insurgency and accusations that militants were using Malaysian territory to plan and train for attacks. Malaysian leaders were appalled at human rights atrocities such as the October 2004 Tak Bai incident in which 78 Malay-Muslim protestors suffocated to death in the back of Thai army trucks. Abdullah expressed concern that unless Thailand could contain the crisis, the violence would spread, possibly across the border into Malaysia. Relations worsened when Thaksin alleged that southern militants were being trained in the jungles of Kelantan. Abdullah angrily rejected the allegation, declaring that Malaysia was “not a base that can be used by any group planning to take action against any other country” (Straits Times, December 19, 2004). Relations reached their nadir in August 2005 when 131 Malay-Muslims crossed into Malaysia claiming persecution from the Thai authorities. Bangkok demanded that Kuala Lumpur repatriate the group on the grounds that some among them were militants. Malaysia incensed its neighbor by asking Bangkok to guarantee the group’s human rights and by allowing the UNHCR to screen the refugees. In December 2005, Malaysia repatriated one of the 131 refugees, Manase Jaelo, whom Bangkok claimed was the mastermind behind the January 4, 2004 raid on an arms depot. To date, however, the other 130 refugees remain in Malaysia. During 2006, the Thaksin government repeated the accusation that southern militants were being sent to training camps in Kelantan, and that bombs manufactured in Malaysia were being smuggled into Thailand. Kuala Lumpur warned Bangkok not to use Malaysia as a scapegoat for the violence (AFP, June 17, 2006).

The Malaysian government does not support the southern insurgency and has a vested interest in seeing stability return to the area. The Malaysian government worries not only about the possible spillover effects of the conflict, but also that regional terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya (JI) may make themselves central to the conflict, a fear most recently expressed by Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar (Associated Press, February 8). Thai allegations of militant training camps located in Kelantan are probably untrue, as there are plenty of remote places in the three southern provinces to conduct this kind of activity; indeed, one such camp was raided by the Thai army on March 2 in Narathiwat. At any rate, the Thaksin government never provided concrete evidence to back up its allegations. Nevertheless, Thai claims that militants regularly cross over into Malaysia, and plan attacks there, have more resonance. The border is highly porous, and there are an estimated 50,000-100,000 people in the area who hold both Thai and Malaysian identity cards, facilitating easy access across the border. Furthermore, while the Malaysian government does not support the insurgency, there is a lot of sympathy from people in the northern states for their ethnic brethren across the border, sympathy which increased significantly in the wake of incidents such as Tak Bai. There have been allegations that local police in Kelantan turn a blind eye to the presence of Malay-Muslim militants.

At the official level, moreover, Malaysian cooperation with Thailand during 2004-2006 was constrained by several factors. First, the Malaysian authorities have, in the past, been reluctant to hand over suspects to the Thais because they feared they might be subject to extrajudicial executions, and were concerned of the political backlash that would follow. Second, the country’s governing party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO), cannot be perceived as caving into Thai demands as this would provide political ammunition to the Islamic opposition Parti Islam SeMalaysia (PAS), which controls Kelantan state. Third, as chair of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Malaysia believes it has a duty to protect the rights of Muslims around the world.

Thai-Malaysia Relations Post-Coup

After the military-led coup of September 19, 2006, Prime Minister Surayud embarked on a fence-mending mission with Malaysia. In October, Surayud met with Abdullah in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the insurgency. The two leaders agreed to establish a direct channel of contact, while Surayud promised that if the 130 refugees wanted to return to Thailand they would be “welcomed in peace” (Bernama, October 18, 2006). In November, Surayud annoyed Kuala Lumpur by alleging that southern militants were raising funds on the Malaysian side of the border by soliciting donations and through extortion. Malaysia rejected the claim, but by the end of the year relations had recovered sufficiently for Abdullah to praise Surayud’s more “diplomatic” approach to resolving the conflict (Bangkok Post, December 12, 2006).

Several months earlier it had been revealed that former Malaysian premier Mahathir Mohamad had mediated three rounds of peace talks between senior Thai military officers and exiled leaders of older insurgency groups, such as the Pattani United Liberation Organization (PULO), on the Malaysian island of Langkawi during 2005. Although the talks were brokered by Mahathir’s own peace foundation, both Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur had obviously given their nod of approval. The talks produced a Joint Peace and Development Plan for the south that rejected the idea of independence (or even autonomy), but called for an amnesty for exiled leaders, the restoration of the Southern Border Provinces Administration Center (SBPAC) and the introduction of the Malay language in schools. When the recommendations were presented to Thaksin in February 2006, the prime minister ignored them. The talks were of little value anyway as it has become clear that the exiled leaders have little influence over the current generation of insurgents (Terrorism Monitor, September 8, 2006).

In January of this year, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit, Surayud and Abdullah agreed to reconvene annual talks between the two leaderships and expedite JDS projects. Malaysia and Indonesia also agreed to a Thai request to include the three restive provinces in the Indonesia-Malaysia-Thailand Growth Triangle in another effort to boost economic development in the area. Further progress was achieved during the Surayud-Abdullah meetings of February 11-12. The two leaders agreed to resolve the issue of dual-nationality by sharing biometric information contained in electronic databases to identify people with dual-nationality. Malaysia, which does not recognize dual-nationality, has said that any Malaysian national found to have two passports will be asked to choose a single nationality. The two leaders also discussed tightening security along the porous border. Prior to Abdullah’s meeting, Surayud had suggested extending the two-mile security barrier between the two countries to 17 miles in an effort to curb insurgent activities and smuggling (The Nation, February 1). Malaysia was initially lukewarm on the proposal, but after Abdullah’s visit the Thai-Malaysia joint border committee agreed to extend it by six miles (Bangkok Post, February 14). On March 1, the Thai army revealed that it would begin joint patrols with the Malaysian police on the border between Satun and Perlis for three months starting on March 13 (TNA, March 2).

The most intriguing aspect of the Surayud-Abdullah meeting was the issue of Malaysia’s possible role as a mediator between the Thai government and the insurgents. In Thailand, the Bernama news agency quoted Abdullah as stating that Malaysia was well-placed to act as a mediator: “We know the separatist groups, in the sense that they are Muslims of Malay descent and that Malaysia has good relations with Thailand” (Bernama, February 13). Thai Defense Minister Boonrawd Somtas welcomed Abdullah’s offer, but Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram denied that Thailand was seeking a role for Malaysia as a mediator. The Malaysian foreign minister responded that it was up to Thailand to make a formal request for mediation. Later, Surayud muddied the waters further by saying that Thailand welcomed Malaysia’s offer of mediation if it could “help us figure out the right group [to talk to]” (The Nation, February 17).

It remains to be seen whether talks between the Thai government and the insurgents will take place and what role, if any, Malaysia will play. So far the insurgents have not taken up the government’s offer of talks and are unlikely to do so as long as their success against the Thai authorities continues. As mentioned earlier, talks between Bangkok and the exiled groups seems to be of limited utility, and Mahathir has said his role as mediator is no longer welcome (The Nation, January 9).

The Violence Continues

Despite the implementation of new policies post-coup, the violence continues to escalate (Terrorism Monitor, February 1). The day after the Malaysian prime minister returned home, Surayud admitted that his government had yet to win over the hearts and minds of the people in the south, remarking that the local population “still have no confidence in government authorities” (Bangkok Post, February 14). As a sign of the prime minister’s frustration, and in his first open split with the coup leader, Surayud accused General Sonthi Boonyaratglin of not doing enough to curb the violence in the south (Bangkok Post, February 14). In response, General Sonthi admitted that he had put “political matters” ahead of the insurgency, a reference to the government’s plummeting popularity and the machinations of former Prime Minister Thaksin (Bangkok Post, February 24).

The failure of the Surayud government to make substantial inroads against the insurgents was underscored in spectacular fashion on February 18 when militants conducted 50 coordinated bombings, shootings and arson attacks across Yala, Narathiwat, Pattani and Songkla, killing nine and injuring 44. With Thai-Chinese businesses bearing the brunt of the damage, the attacks were timed to coincide with the arrival of the Lunar New Year. The Thai press strongly criticized the military and government for failing to prevent the violence, despite warnings that attacks would take place over the Chinese New Year. Several newspapers also criticized Surayud’s policy of reconciliation and his offer to hold talks with the insurgents. The prime minister, however, declared that the attacks would not dissuade him from seeking talks with the militants. In the wake of the attacks, Defense Minister Boonrawd admitted to parliament that the government had failed to contain the violence in the south. He also declared that 1,000 youth were actively involved in the insurgency and that they could draw on the support of 10,000 sympathizers. Boonrawd claimed that some militants had enrolled at universities in Bangkok and could launch attacks in the capital (The Nation, February 23).


The meetings between Surayud and Abdullah were widely hailed in both the Thai and Malaysian press as signaling a major improvement in bilateral relations. While the outcome of the meetings is likely to have a positive impact on security along the Thai-Malaysia border, increased dialogue and cooperation between the two countries will not in itself bring an end to the conflict. Fundamentally, the insurgency remains a domestic issue that only Thailand itself can resolve.