- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2007

THANNAM THIP, Thailand

A shallow river, deep jungles and a 12-mile wall mark the divide not just between Thailand and Malaysia but between Southeast Asia’s Muslim and Buddhist worlds.

This stretch of border is considered a potential front in the Muslim insurgency racking southern Thailand, mysterious in its goals and undeterred by government crackdowns or peace overtures.

Analysts have been divided over whether Thai insurgents are plugging into a broader Islamic movement. But a three-month investigation by the AP indicates the separatist rebellion, which has taken the lives of more than 2,000 people, is in fact making outside connections:

• Young Thai Muslims — thousands, by Thai government estimate — are being educated in neighboring Muslim countries and the Middle East, and an unknown number return as recruiters or participants in the insurgency. Some may have received military training abroad.

• Reports persist that some Indonesians or other foreigners are training and fighting with the rebels, though none has been captured and the reports are unconfirmed.

• Islamic radicals around the world are increasingly setting their sights on the insurgency. An Arab Web site, dedicated exclusively to southern Thailand and thought to be the first of its kind, appeared in January. Couched in Islamic rhetoric, it backs independence for southern Thais.

• Malaysia denies providing any support, mindful that the insurgency could infect its own mainly Muslim population. But the Thai government is worried enough to be proposing a longer wall than the barrier the Malaysians built in Cold War times to stop smugglers and communist guerrillas.

“We know when some of them cross the border and report it to our Foreign Ministry and the Malaysian military, but nobody ever gets caught,” Lt. Chatchai Kitkhunthot said in this border village. He was one of several Thai army officers and local officials who pinpointed border infiltration and escape routes on maps and the ground.

Regional conflict

“Basically the southern Thailand conflict is becoming more regionalized. But we are at the very early stage of it,” said Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, who wrote “Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror.”

Islamist militancy is spreading in Southeast Asia, he said, and “What is happening in Thailand will not be an exception.”

Others disagree, likening the insurgency to the Muslim uprising in Indonesia’s Aceh province, which shunned foreign help and ended the fighting with U.N. mediation.

“They are fighting for a separate state, so they don’t want one run by outsiders,” said a Western official in Bangkok knowledgeable about counterterrorism efforts, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

People on both sides of the border share ethnicity, language and Islam. Muslim-run soup restaurants on the Malaysian side are suspected of helping fund the rebels, and this has become an irritant in relations between two countries that are mainstays of the Southeast Asian alliance.

According to the Thai military, the insurgents number 3,000 to 5,000, with about 10,000 to 12,000 sympathizers in a Muslim population of 3 million in Yala, Narathiwat and Pattani provinces, bordering Malaysia. They are secretive, brutal and effective. “We don’t know when or where they will attack next,” said Col. Wichai Thongdaeng, an army spokesman in the south.

Shadowy insurgency

An independent sultanate until it merged with Thailand a century ago, the southern provinces have seen rebellions come and go. In the latest, which began in early 2004, the rebels have torched schools, bombed banks, beheaded about 25 people, and shot teachers, policemen, government officials and ordinary citizens. More than half the victims have been Muslims suspected of collaborating with authorities such as schoolteachers, civil servants or policemen.

In one recent incident, Army Lt. Jenkila Somboon said, three Muslim rubber tappers were fatally shot because their village was getting too friendly with the soldiers.

Little is known about the insurgents — called “juwae,” a local word for fighters. They have offered no program, leadership roster or even a name. Their only public communications are threatening leaflets. But Thai intelligence officers who have interrogated defectors or captured insurgents say that at least some of the groups are fighting for an independent Islamic state.

“If you go to work, we will kill you cruelly. We will wait for you 24 hours a day, follow you wherever you go,” said one recent leaflet obtained by the AP, ordering Buddhists in one area to leave within three days. It is not known whether they left, but the insurgency has already displaced hundreds of villagers.

International Risk, a Hong Kong-based consulting firm, calls the insurgency the world’s “new terrorism front line,” but its shadowy nature accounts in part for the differing assessments of outside involvement.

Thai leaders and intelligence officials say that loose, personal ties but no formal links exist between the domestic militants and networks such as al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, Southeast Asia’s foremost terrorist organization.

Islamic training

The main conduits for militancy, they say, are Thai Muslims who study in Muslim countries ranging from Malaysia to Libya, then come back and spread their knowledge in religious schools. These form the breeding grounds of the insurgency, which Thai officials think also attract funding from the Middle East that is channeled into the rebels’ hands.

Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra claimed that Malaysia harbored military training camps for the Thais, and some Western intelligence analysts say that promising youths are systematically chosen for training abroad, including the Middle East, and sent to key cells on their return.

Then, there’s an Indonesian connection dating to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Thai and Indonesian militants trained together in Afghan-run camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Between 1999 and 2003, Thai students held regular paramilitary sessions in Bandung, Indonesia. The most promising were then sent to Mindanao in the southern Philippines, another region experiencing an Islamic rebellion, for more combat training, said Col. Wichai Chucherd, defense attache at the Thai Embassy in Indonesia.

An Indonesian military intelligence report on the Bandung training seen by the AP said the presence of Thai separatists on Indonesian soil is worrying “because they could form links with Jemaah Islamiyah members who are now in Indonesia.”

Thai insurgents provided support for frequent visits by Jemaah Islamiyah’s purported operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, who was captured in Thailand in 2003 and is now in U.S. custody.

But no foreign fighters have been captured or killed in southern Thailand, though Thai army officers say a small number are thought to be around.

Col. Pornthep Kalamphasut, deputy commander of the army’s “hearts and minds” operation in the south, said some communication intercepts among the rebels have been in the Indonesian language. Col. Saksri Ngoypatphan, who commands units in two volatile districts, said defectors talk of tall non-Thais, often hooded, being involved in training.

Of greater concern to the Thai military is the winding 402-mile border with Malaysia.

Crossing the border is easy, using such corridors as the Hala Bala Wildlife Sanctuary, a thick jungle, said Phuchit Saechan, headman of Thannam Thip. His village abuts the wall that Thailand wants to replace with a 16-mile barrier.

“The border doesn’t mean much. We are the same people on both sides,” said Mohammad Nor Ali, a restaurant owner near the lightly policed immigration checkpoint at Rantau Panjang, on the Malaysian side of the border in Kelantan state.

He admitted being sympathetic to the Thai Muslims’ fight “because they are our brothers.”

Mr. Gunaratna, the Singapore-based analyst, said that despite official Malaysian denials, northern Malaysia “remains an active intellectual and material support base for the insurgent groups active in southern Thailand.”

Malaysia’s fine line

As for financing, it is the ubiquitous soup restaurants run by Thai Muslims in Malaysia that have lately become the issue, after Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont claimed many were a significant source of funding and recruitment for the separatists.

Malaysian authorities took offense and issued indignant denials.

Malaysia’s government is aware that the insurgency could embolden its own radicals. “We must not allow any breeding ground for terrorism to exist or to be nurtured,” said Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar.

Malaysia also must tread a fine line, curbing extremism without alienating its own people. Despite Thai pleas with its Muslim neighbor states for more cooperation, there have been no joint operations or even a common intelligence database.

Thailand’s military regime, which overthrew Mr. Thaksin’s elected government, says it has adopted a “hearts and minds” strategy rather than brute force to end the insurgency.

“We want to de-couple the south from international Islamic terrorism,” Foreign Minister Nitya Pibulsonggram said in an interview. “Cooperation with Malaysia is really the key.”

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