A senior Thai official has again alleged that Cambodian Cham Muslims with links to the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network have infiltrated southern Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported on Saturday, prompting renewed claims from officials in Phnom Penh that Thailand is trying to scapegoat Cambodia for its internal problems.
General Wattanachai Chaimuenwong, a close aide to Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont, told the Bangkok Post that Cambodian Chams crossing the border into Thailand were joining the radical Gurakan Mujahideen Islam Pattani insurgent group and infiltrating religious schools in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim south.
“Even though I do not know where they are, I can say Cambodians with alleged JI links are now in the southern part of Thailand,” the Bangkok Post quoted Wattanachai as saying in a front-page story entitled “Cambodians in JI Terror Link.”
Wattanachai said that numerous Cambodian Muslims have recently arrived in Thailand legally en route to Malaysia, but there is no record of their departure from Thailand.
“We do not know exactly where they end up. Some go to religious schools and pursue religious studies in the deep south,” the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying. The situation underlines the need for intelligence cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia, he said. “This [influx of Cambodians] is linked to the southern separatist insurgency,” the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying.
Cambodian Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said that before Thai officials make such claims, they should provide evidence to back them up.
“Show us proof [of the terrorist links]…before making statements about neighboring countries,” Khieu Kanharith said by phone Sunday. “We don’t see people from competent authorities who have it.”
Khieu Kanharith claimed that another Thai official—Royal Thai Army commander Colonel Chaichaiyan Sothornchai—had asked the Thai government to stop issuing visas to any Cambodian Muslims.
“This is not fair. If they stop issuing visas to all Cambodia Muslims, we should stop allowing Thai product imports to Cambodia,” he said, adding that such a move would make Cambodia a “scapegoat” without solving Thailand’s problem.
Khieu Kanharith also said security issues should be solved through “the proper channels” of government ministries in accordance with agreements between the Cambodian and Thai governments.
“If there are security issues, security services from both sides must cooperate,” he said.
Officials from the Thai Embassy could not be reached for comment.
According to the Bangkok Post, Wattanachai said there were “frequent arrests” of terrorist suspects in Cambodia and cited the capture of Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian better known as Hambali, who spent time in Cambodia before his 2003 arrest in Thailand. Hambali was believed to be al-Qaida’s top operative in the region.
Wattanachai did not name any other terrorist suspects, but police in Pursat province last month arrested four men linked to a so-called “Khmer Empire Movement” that Cambodian officials said had been plotting to attack Vietnam and Thailand to try and regain Cambodian territory lost centuries ago.
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said Sunday that while Cambodia might produce one or two terrorists, it is not a major terrorist breeding ground. “The Cham minority is very good, very peaceful, and they conform to the law of Cambodia,” Khieu Sopheak said.
Cambodia will support Thailand’s attempt to crack down on terrorism if it finds proof of named Cambodians who have violated the law, he said. “The Ministry of Interior never supports any individual terrorist,” he said.
SRP lawmaker Ahmad Yahya, a prominent member of the Cham community, said Thailand has not provided any evidence to substantiate its claims about radical Cambodian Chams in southern Thailand. He called upon Thailand to provide a list of any such individuals to Cambodia’s Interior Ministry.
“When they have a problem there, they blame it here,” he said, adding that Cambodia’s Chams are not radicalized.
Last month, Wattanachai backed down from his public allegation that Cambodian and Indonesian extremists were training insurgents in Thailand’s restive South, saying the government lacked sufficient evidence at the time to confirm their nationalities.
Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho, said the Thai government may be trying to scapegoat Cambodian Muslims due to its inability to contain the separatist violence in the Muslim-dominated south, where the death toll since 2004 has topped 2,100.
“They are very nervous right now with the bombings in the south—it affects the economy [and] tourism,” Kek Galabru said.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)