Rohingya migrants sit on a police van after arriving at Ranong provincial court, Thailand to hear charge of illegal entry. Pic: AP.

Over the last month Thailand has detained at least 800 Rohingya, a persecuted Muslim minority from Burma. The international community were concerned they would be deported, but for now the Thai government has relented and stated they will not deport the Rohingya. The government will allow the UNHCR  to interview the Rohingya, Thailand will provide them with shelter for 6 months, and assured that they would be treated humanely.

However, the possible role that the Rohingya may play in the insurgency in southern Thailand has been raised. The Bangkok Post on January 16, 2013:

The government plans to consult with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before deciding on the status of nearly 850 detained Rohingya migrants, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra says.

The government will not return or relocate the Rohingya migrants for the time being, Ms Yingluck said after Tuesday’s cabinet meeting.

Ms Yingluck said some of the migrants might join the southern insurgency rather than seek asylum in a third country.

The Nation on January 18, 2013:

Chalerm said he had no concerns that the Muslim Rohingyas would get involved with the insurgency in the deep South. “What is problematic is their [possible] future illegal entry into Thailand in the long term. This is a very delicate matter and Thailand needs to protect its interests while not violating human rights,” he said

Fellow AC blogger Francis Wade blogged on Yingluck’s comments. Key excerpt:

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Sinawatra indulged in some loaded conjecturing yesterday when she warned that the 840-plus Rohingya in detention in Thailand “might join the southern insurgency rather than seek asylum in a third country”. The men, women and children in question were found in Songkla’s Sadao district over the course of several raids last week on smuggling dens run by human trafficking rackets.

The Prime Minister’s statement, apparently unsubstantiated, is a reckless one, based mainly on the hackneyed assumption that any disenfranchised Muslim is automatically a terrorist threat. It risks directing anti-Muslim sentiment at the Rohingya, who are in Thailand in part to escape that branding.

BP: Indeed for an ethnic group who have long been labelled as terrorists, in what DVB calls a disinformation campaign by the Burmese authorities, and more recently last year by Burmese nationalists, such loaded conjecture could lead to further speculation and create unease for Rohingya who make it Thailand. As it is the plight of the Rohingya receives little sympathy in Thailand so one wonders, was it really necessary to speculate? Fortunately, the PM’s speculation was a footnote in most stories in the Thai media with much greater focus being given to the change in government position to allow them to stay for processing by the UN or the government was going to strictly control the entry of the Rohingya in Thailand.

However, the PM’s speculation may have provided an opportunity for others to be more specific on the threat of the Rohingya’s involvement in the Deep South. The Nation:

Some Rohingya migrants arrested for illegal entry have confessed to being trained by insurgents to undertake attacks in the restive deep South, according to a highly-placed source in the Justice Ministry’s Forensic Science Institute.

The source said the men had entered Thailand through Mae Sot in northern Tak province and later moved to Sungai Kolok in Narathiwat in the far south. Their case was discovered in 2009.

“These two men confessed that they were trained by the RKK and later were sent back to carry out attacks in the southern border provinces. This is very worrying,” the source said.

In 2009, a number of Rohingya carrying Malaysian ID cards were arrested after having carried out attacks in the southern border provinces, according to the source. “But a case like this was not common,” the source said.

Authorities also found that some illegal immigrants had smuggled explosive substances from India, she said.

The source said it was possible the illegal immigrants got help from smuggling rings to transport them from border areas to other parts of the country. “Many Rohingya are smuggled to the coastal provinces of Satun and Ranong, and some of them are sent to Malaysia.”

A source at the Internal Security Operations Command (Isoc) yesterday denied having such information about Rohingya in Thailand.

BPASTV Manager and other Thai media outlets have on-the-record quotes from Dr. Pornthip, the head of the Central Institute of Forensic Science, stating the same thing. This is the first time BP has seen any mention of confessions although talk of explosives and the Rohingya is not new. Back in 2009 when the Rohingya were pushed back to sea, Dr. Pornthip fronted the media and linked the Rohingya to the insurgency in the Deep South, providing cover for the military to detain them as a threat to national security. At the time, she told Al Jazeera:

But according to a leading Thai forensics expert, “explosives residue” was found on one of the Rohingya boats that landed on Thailand’s Andaman coast in December.

Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, a forensic pathologist working for the ministry of justice, was asked by the Thai military to examine the contents of some of the boats, specifically to examine whether the refugees may be linked to fighters in the south, and if they held any objects that may be a “security threat”.

Explosives

“There were substances and chemicals found that can be used in explosives … there was actually quite a significant level,” she told Al Jazeera.

Asked whether the traces could be directly linked to the separatist movement in the south, she said: “I can only give the authorities what my results of the tests were.”

BP: As blogged in 2010:

No details are provided on what techonology was used by Pornthip to detect explosive residue, but given she is one of the ardent supporters of the GT200 device* and was using the GT200 device just a few months before to confirm whether there was explosive residue at another event, shouldn’t we wonder whether the GT200 device was used here? Aside from the GT200 device was there are any other confirmation of explosive residue?

BP: The latest statement by Dr. Pornthip is more than just talk of explosive residue. There is talk of actual explosives and confessions. Four years have passed now and while prosecutions often take a long time so have those who confessed been prosecuted? Is there any other outside source that can corroborate what Dr. Pornthip is saying? So far haven’t seen one. Aside from the allegations above, BP does not recall any other evidence linking the Rohingya with the insurgency in Thailand’s Deep South.

BP sees three ways outsiders could be involved in the violence in Thailand’s Deep South into 3 categories: 1. Trainers; 2: Operators/implementers; and 3. Support personnel. No doubt there can be other possible categories.

1. Trainers
Over 10 years ago, Thai passports were reportedly been found at Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines, training camps. There are also reports of logistical support and training being provided by those in Indonesia and elsewhere from many years ago.

Reports of training and support in the past make sense though. This was before the resurgence 0f violence in 2004 or not long after when the capability of many insurgents in the Deep South was lacking. In the years since then, we have had bigger and more sophisticated bombs and the insurgents certainly possess a level of expertise in bomb-making which didn’t exist 10 years ago. With this expertise means, there is less need for outsiders unless they are providing more specific training.

What is the likelihood of Rohingya arriving by boat providing such training? Common sense would suggest “very unlikely. Why you ask? If they just wanted to enter Thailand, why risk doing so by boat? Many boats have been lost at sea, the trip is unsafe etc. If you are some expert, you wouldn’t risk coming by boat.

In fact, in the case that Pornthip is referring to from 2009, it involved entry from the North of Thailand via a land border crossing and not by Rohingya coming by boat. There seems a great difference, in BP’s opinion, of those who have arriving by boat vs someone arriving by land. To conflate the two in a risk assessment, would be unwise.

2. Implementers/Operators
By this, BP means those who will carry out attacks. How are the Rohingya going to integrate themselves with cells that operate in the Deep South? You have language problems, you have the fact that they look different and would no doubt come under suspicion from the authorities on their appearance, you have the lack of ties to others in the village, and general lack of trust of newcomers.

3. Support personnel
Now, for Rohingya who end up in the 3 southern border provinces, no doubt they would be looking to earn money to survive. Aside from the problems of integrating themselves and becoming known, it would make sense that any tasks given to outsiders would likely be menial tasks. Again though, what is the likelihood of being able to screen such people in advance? people once they arrived and one wonders what kind of screening  upon arrival could help.

For 2 and 3, there may be isolated cases – now or in the future – of Rohingyas ending up “in the insurgency”, but again common sense would suggest that there will be few outsiders particularly the Rohingya who don’t have the same ethnic background as those in the Deep South and speak a different language. More importantly, those who end up involved would likely only do so after living in Thailand for many years. For such people,  it would be difficult to screen upon arrival (they are unlikely to have phone numbers of cell leaders in their pockets as it is only once they arrive could they become acquainted with such leaders).

Overall, there may be some isolated cases. Some people from any ethnic group could be hired to smuggle weapons or explosives if the price is right. There is still no evidence that any Rohingya arriving by boat have become involved in the insurgency. Perhaps, the authorities should focus attention on actual, tangible threats….

btw, Saksith has a somewhat related post with some background.