Thai officials have noted a surge in the number of ethnic Cambodian Cham Muslims traveling to the south of Thailand, according to a report from the Thai News Agency.
More than 100 Cambodian Chams—most of them men—have been entering Thailand each day, many claiming to visit relatives or to travel on to Malaysia for religious studies, the agency reported Thursday.
But Thai immigration officials told the agency they are thoroughly inspecting the Cambodian Chams, worried that their increase in numbers may be linked to violent groups in the Muslim-dominated southern provinces of Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala.
“We fear that these Cambodian Muslims might have been lured by the southern insurgents to take part in their activities,” deputy immigration police Chief Lieutenant Colonel Nirut Reungjinda told TNA.
According to TNA, Nirut added that most of the Chams have valid passports and visas, which at roughly 20,000 baht (about $500), would normally be too costly for them.
Cambodian officials on Sunday denied any link between the rise in Cham travelers and Thai insurgent groups.
“Chams in Cambodia are not difficult,” said Sith Ybrahim, an ethnic Cham and secretary of state of the Ministry of Cults and Religious Affairs. “We are just a Cham minority and are not involved.”
“We cross the border because we are [living in] difficult [conditions] and are poor,” he added.
An increasing number of Chams have been producing passports in order to find work in Thailand and Malaysia as fishermen or laborers, he said.
“We are worried of being accused [of terrorist activity] when passing Thailand to work in Malaysia,” Sith Ybrahim said.
At Banteay Meachey province’s Poipet commune, which borders Thailand, deputy commune Chief San Seanhor acknowledged that at least 100 Chams cross the border each day. But he, too, said they were merely migrating to find work.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith also doubted that Cambodian Chams could be involved in terrorist activities in Thailand.