Saturday, February 17, 2007

Closer, Getting closer

Thai Takes

Malaysia's relations with its northern neighbour is warming to a new level, paving the way for Kuala Lumpur to play a role in helping Thailand solve the Muslim insurgency in its southern provinces.

MALAYSIAN armoured vehicles rumbling into Thai soil to raid communist insurgent camps is one of 48-year-old Panitan Wattanayagorn's memories of growing up in the Thai border town of Betong in the 1970s.

“We knew the Malaysian troops were in Thailand to fight the communist insurgency which was also a threat to us,” recalled Panitan, who is now foreign affairs adviser to the Thai government.

Those were the days when Thailand and Malaysia cooperated successfully to combat an insurgency which was a threat to both sides.

In the last five years, Panitan noted that the two countries have not been able to work as closely as they should on cross-border threats.

One factor was the leadership change in Thailand and Malaysia.

“Almost at the same time, both countries had new leaders and the closeness between their top leaders was not like it used to be,” said the Chulalongkorn University international relations department associate professor.

Ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi were as different as chalk and cheese.

Thaksin preferred to talk openly through the media about sensitive issues such as Malaysia providing sanctuary for Thai Muslim separatists, which in the discreet world of diplomacy, touched a raw nerve as far as Malaysia was concerned.

Abdullah, on the other hand, preferred to be low key and diplomatic.

“He did not want to respond directly to any of Thaksin's comments in the media,” Panitan said.

But this was perceived by the Thai leadership as not being open and created an atmosphere of uncertainty on the (southern Thailand) issue.

The new international environment after Sept 11, 2001, compounded the uneasy relations between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur.

The public – infuriated by the active Muslim separatists in the southern region of the predominantly Buddhist country – was suspicions towards a Muslim majority country like Malaysia.

“Thai leaders commented publicly that Malaysia was not sincere about helping Thailand combat problems in the south. At the same time, Thaksin adopted a hardline approach towards the south and this put Malaysia in an even more difficult position to cooperate with the Thais,” Panitan said.

Retired Universiti Malaya professor and international relations expert Chandran Jeshuran, has a slightly different view.

“Malaysia-Thai relations has never sunk to the point of being described as 'not friendly' although there have been political, economic and diplomatic differences voiced publicly by both sides,” Chandran said.

The war, if one could call it that, which was largely fought through the media between Malaysian Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar and the Thai authorities, did at one time look as if it would turn ugly.

Fortunately, the crisis blew over.

“That altercation was entirely caused by the differing perceptions about the troubles in the south,” Chandran added.

Panitan said a new chapter in Thai-Malaysian relations occurred when the Sept 19 coup overthrew Thaksin and Gen Surayud Chulanont was appointed Thai Prime Minister.

The new government made a 180-degree turn in its policy towards the Muslim insurgency in the south. It used a more sensible approach, starting with an apology.

“This sent a clear message to Malaysia that now, a policy turn was taking place and the gate was open to cooperate again,” Panitan said in an interview a day after Abdullah's three-day visit to Thailand.

Surayud's gentle personality also contributed to the improvement in ties. The fact that Abdullah and Surayud played golf in Phuket on Sunday before their bilateral meeting in Bangkok the next day was seen by Thais as a sign that the two leaders had good rapport.

An editorial in The Nation said that the good bond developed between Surayud and Abdullah pointed to closer cooperation on issues of mutual interest, namely the raging insurgency in Thailand.

Now, instead of armoured vehicles, Panitan said the he would be looking out for Malaysian envoys moving to southern Thailand.

(Published in The Star on Feb 17. Photograph courtesy of The Nation)