A case for caution with prudence

opinion April 22, 2018 01:00

By The Nation

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Malaysian, Thai officials should have had better communication about a deep-South resident and his alleged links to terror

A Narathiwat resident who was questioned for several days in a military camp in Pattani was accused by Malaysian authorities of being a member of an Islamic State (IS) cell – allegations that were dismissed by the Thai authorities.

After several days of questioning, Thai security officials concluded that Awae Wae-Eya, 37, was an Internet troll who had found himself in trouble with the authorities in the past because of his online posts.

Thai security authorities tried to play down the threat, saying Awae was just a self-promoting figure who loved to claim links to IS to get attention on social media. “He is unemployed, an Internet troll but definitely has no connection with IS,” Pramot Promin, the spokesman of the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc), said. Awae’s record is quite clean, as he has never been involved in any violent incidents in the deep South, Pramot said.

Awae is a resident of Joh I Rong, a district in Narathiwat that is in the news every now and then because it has been designated a “Safety Zone”, where a ceasefire is expected to be observed by both Patani Malay separatists and Thai security forces. 

One needs to be mindful of the fact that the ongoing separatist conflict in the Malay-speaking far South is ethno-nationalist in nature, which is entirely different from a terrorist organisation like IS.

Naturally, anything with the IS label nowadays will get people worried because of the brutality of its members, not to mention the fact that some extremist groups in Southeast Asia have pledged alliance to them. We are talking about groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, also known as the Islamic State of Lanao, that took control of the southern Philippine city of Marawi. Any suggestion that IS has or is trying to get a foothold in Thailand or in the Muslim-majority far South has been shot down by Thai security officials. To be fair to them, there is nothing to suggest that the ongoing separatist insurgency in this historically contested region has been penetrated by IS or radical Muslim terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah or al-Qaeda.

But while the nature of the conflict in Thailand’s far South is still very much ethno-nationalist, it doesn’t mean an individual like Awae would not join IS or some other terrorist organisation.

After all, online recruitment and self-radicalisation have become the new norm for terrorists these days. Those with a proclivity for radicalisation do not have to travel all the way to IS-controlled areas in the Middle East or the southern Philippines to become a member.

But the discrepancy between the statement coming out of Kuala Lumpur and the response from Bangkok should be a matter of concern.

Terrorist groups like IS know no political borders and it is important that law enforcement and state actors, like Thailand and Malaysia, recalibrate their work and information-sharing to reflect this understanding. 

To the Malaysians, Awae is an IS operative looking to carry out terrorist attacks against non-Muslim targets in Malaysia. To the Thais, Awae is little more than an Internet troll who, like many Malays in southern Thailand, sympathises with the Patani separatist struggle.

The truth is probably somewhere between these two arguments. It is important that justice is rendered to Awae because no state can be seen as unjust, as that would only strengthen the terrorists’ narrative and vindicate them.

Perhaps some backdoor channel discussion should have taken place between the security agencies of the two countries before making a public statement. After all, the discrepancy makes both sides look callow.