BANGKOK: Smuggling activities along the 645km Thai-Malaysia border lately has come under closer scrutiny from Thai authorities, who are determined not to let the problem evolve into a bigger security headache for the country.
The problem of smuggling along the common border between the two countries is not new, but it received fresh attention following the disclosure by Malaysian police of firearms smuggling activities involving a Malaysian suspect with ties to the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.
Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar, in a statement last month, said a suspect, Muhammad Muzaffa Arief Junaidi from Rantau Panjang, Kelantan, had escaped to southern Thailand with a pistol and an M-4 assault rifle.
The 27-year old IS member, according to Khalid, belonged to the same IS militant cell responsible for smuggling firearms into Malaysia from southern Thailand.
Although it was established by Bangkok authorities later that the suspect exited Thailand on April 21 through the Sungai Golok immigration checkpoint and returned to Malaysia, Thailand has taken initiatives to beef up its border security.
According to a source in southern Thailand, Muzaffa was a regular traveller, who made at least nine visits to the provinces along the border with Malaysia. He declined to elaborate on the nature of Muzaffa’s visits.
Worried by the possibility of IS establishing its foothold in southern Thailand, Thai Army Chief Gen Chalermchai Sittisart travelled to Narathiwat last week to oversee the urgent deployment of troops from the 15th Infantry Division based in Takbai to secure its border with Malaysia.
Malaysia has a problem with the IS, with more than 230 of its citizens, as of February this year, arrested for either having links with the terrorist group or supporting its deviant ideology.
According to the Malaysian home ministry, the police have also identified 95 Malaysians who joined the terrorist group in Syria and about 30, who died in fighting. Another eight were arrested as soon as they returned to Malaysia.
Thailand, which has a large Muslim community in the southern provinces of the country bordering northern Malaysia, does not want the problem to spread into its border and has taken urgent measures by pouring in more troops to patrol its border.
Meanwhile, fighting in Marawi, Mindanao, between Philippine forces and IS-affiliated groups, the Maute and Abu Sayyaf, which has raged for almost a month now, has alarmed countries in the region, forcing them to be more vigilant of any attempt by the IS and its operatives to establish a caliphate in Southeast Asia.
The prospect of “Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyah” spreading its tentacles to countries in the region is something real that needs urgent attention.
Chalermchai ordered his special troops to patrol the Narathiwat and Yala side of the Thai border with Kedah and Kelantan, with special attention given to securing the 95km-long Sungai Golok which separates the two southern provinces with Rantau Panjang in Kelantan.
“The patrols are intended to block the smuggling of war materials, including ammunition and explosives,” he reportedly said, adding that the intensified patrols would also monitor illegal crossings by members of militant groups in southern Thailand.
For years, the narrow and shallow river has not only been a hotbed for smuggling activities, but also a popular illegal crossing for fleeing criminals.
Security agencies in southern Thailand have for years alleged that bomb-making materials used in southern Thailand’s conflict were smuggled into the conflict zone using the numerous “rat holes”, or hidden smugglers’ routes, at the border, especially along the notorious Sungai Golok.
It claimed illegal boat jetties along Sungai Golok, especially those situated at secluded, difficult to monitor areas, have been used by militants to smuggle weapons and explosives in and out of southern Thailand.
Thailand has long maintained that the southern Thai conflict, which has so far claimed more than 6,000 lives, was motivated by nationalist aspirations and was not religious or sectarian in nature.
In the wake of Chalermchai’s visit to Narathiwat, local authorities in Sungai Golok took a bold move to shut down the operations of six illegal boat jetties along Sungai Golok, to the dismay and anger of local villagers whose livelihood depend on the smooth operations of the jetties.
Only one jetty, Pengkalan Prapa, has remained open for operations after the latest move by Thai authorities.
Stung by the authorities’ move to close down the jetties, local villagers last week held a peaceful demonstration in front of one of the affected jetties, asking for the authorities to roll back the move, but the jetties have remained closed until today.
While Malaysia and Thailand are still continuing discussions on the proposal to build a wall at the border, other efforts by both countries in making sure their border was more secure from any criminal element should be intensified.