Interview: As They Say In The Bible ...
Industrial: Just Doing It
Unions: Breaking Into the Boys Club
Activists: Making the Hard Yards
Bad Boss: In the Pooh
Unions: National Focus
Economics: Pop Will Eat Itself
Technology: Dean for President
International: Rangoon Rumble
Education: Blackboard Jungle
Review: From Weakness to Strength
The Locker Room
A Recipe for Conflict
After the Accident
Cuba - the Debate Continues
Greetings from Japan
The arrests of the three Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) suspects in the southern provincial town of Naratiwat coincided with Thailand's Prime Minister Taksin's visit to the White House on 10 June. That meeting with President George Bush was declared a success in improving the strained relationship between the two long-time allies. That relationship was soured when Thailand took a neutral stand over the war in Iraq.
Top of the list of discussions was Thailand's full support for the US-led global fight against terrorism. And as a result of that meeting, Thailand will now be introducing similar anti-terrorist laws introduced by many countries supporting the 'war on terrorism.' The Thai government wants to include acts of terrorism punishable by death.
The three suspects--Maisuri Haji Abdulloh, owner of a religious Islamic school in Naratiwat; his son Muyahi; and a medical doctor Waemahadi Wae-dao, known to the locals as Dr Mahadi, have been accused of plotting to bomb foreign embassies and tourists spots in Thailand and for recruiting local Muslims for the JI movement.
They have not been charged for their alleged crimes and are still under detention in Bangkok. The authorities have
been making conflicting claims about their confessions--all those claims have been denied by their lawyers.
Their arrests have been given leading headline treatment by the local Thai newspapers and other media outlets--giving the impression there is a presence of Muslim separatist and terrorist activities in the predominantly Muslim southern provinces of Naratiwat, Patani, Yala and Satun.
I decided to take a trip to the township of Naratiwat where the three alleged JI suspects came from.
The three hour trip from Hatyai passes through the province of Patani. The trip was more like a leisurely Sunday drive through the countryside in NSW than through a possible trouble-spot. There was certainly no sign of any military or security build up all the way through to Naratiwat.
Naratiwat itself is a friendly, peaceful, sleepy-little-town situated about 70 kilometres from the Thai-Malaysia checkpoint border town of Sungai Golok.
The town of Naratiwat has two main streets. Dr Mahadi's pharmacy is in one of the main streets, opposite one of the two Mosques in town. Maisuri's school--the Burana Islamic Pornoh school is about five kilometres out of town.
The pharmacy had a steady flow of Muslim and non-Muslim customers. The arrest of Dr Mahadi did not seem to have deterred the citizens of Naratiwat from frequenting it.
According to the authorities the three suspects had been watched before their arrests. However, the authorities watching them must have left town. If there was a presence of any security people around, they must have been well hidden and camouflaged.
Walking into the pharmacy, I was greeted by the pharmacist who introduced himself as Sukri.
Sukri said the pharmacy has been in operation for ten years and he has worked there for five years. He described his boss as a honest, sincere and non violent man who have been helping people in need, especially the orphans
He claimed the pharmacy was the biggest in town and customers frequenting it came from all walks of live. If customers came in and could not afford to pay for the already cheap medicines, the doctor would not charge them.
'Have you been questioned by the authorities,' I inquired.
'No,' was the reply.
Sukri said after the doctor's arrest, five plain clothes police came to the pharmacy. They had a video camera with them, videoed the place, checked out the office and took away some paper work. The whole operation lasted no more than 20 minutes.
In the half and hour I was at the pharmacy, I noticed six customers passing through. Four Muslims, one ethnic Thai and one ethnic Chinese--the population of Naratiwat is 80% Muslim.
I had spent more time at the pharmacy than the police had spent searching it, and had managed to question Sukri at length about the doctor's background--far more than the police had done.
As I left the pharmacy another customer was going in. I asked him if he was aware that Dr Mahindi had been arrested as a JI suspect. He replied and said: 'Doctor orang bagus, bukan JI.'
That phase in Malay was repeated time and time again as I inquired about Dr Mahindi's background. Translated into English it means: 'The doctor is a good man, he is not JI.'
It was getting late and I decided to drop into the seafood restaurant across the street for a feed.
Nasir, the owner of the restaurant happens to be a relative of Dr Mahindi who also happens to be a regular customer. And whenever the doctor came to the restaurant, they would sit down and have a chat. But the doctor never discusses politics.
According to Nasir who speaks English, Dr Mahindi had asked him to teach English to the orphans and unemployed kids so that they can find work in the restaurants frequented by foreign tourists.
Dr Mahindi also wanted him to go into a joint venture to open a big Muslim restaurant to provide the orphans and unemployed kids with training and employment.
As far as Nasir is concerned, the doctor is a kind-hearted man and he, like people I have spoken to, is not convinced Mahidi and the two other suspects have JI connections.
When asked if the Muslims in Southern Thailand, especially Naratiwat wanted to form a separate country, Nasir said: 'People in Naratiwat don't think like that.'
'I am a Muslim but I like Thailand, I love Thailand,' Nasir added.
The following morning I went to the market. And again the responses I got from people were the same--the doctor is a good man, they don't believe the three suspects are JIs, and no there is no separatist support especially in Naratiwat.
'The doctor in particular has a pharmacy in town which I frequent regularly. He is a very nice man and there is no sign of any Islamic fundamentalism,' Andrea, a Canadian teacher said.
'Everyone in the community is shocked and very disturbed by this,' she added.
Andrea, lives in a small village just outside town and has been teaching in Naratiwat for the past two months. She has not noticed any separatist movement in Naratiwat but had read about it in the papers when she was in Bangkok.
'People here are very proud to be Thai. They have never expressed any sort of sentiment or feeling of wanting to separate. I haven't come across one person who told me they wanted to separate. They love their King, they love their country, and the separatism, no I do not see that at all.'
My next stop was at the Mosque where Dr Mahidi goes to pray.
The responses I got from people at the Mosque was the same as the responses I got at the market. People were wondering why good and honest citizens were being arrested.
'We all love Thailand and try to be good citizens for this country by being good Muslim,' Suliamen a lawyer said.
'There is no use in getting involved in any movement in separating the land,' he added.
I went to Naratiwat hopping to find signs of a separatist movement there. If there was one, it must have been so secretive that no one has noticed it.
After the arrests of the three suspects it was reported in the Bangkok Post that 'People arriving and departing through the Sungai Golok checkpoint were tightly screened.'
The Bangkok Post also reported Malaysia had sent undercover agents to Sungai Golok to seek JI members 'who might be planning violent attacks in retaliation for the arrests of their comrades.'
Sungai Golok has been notorious for its slack border checkpoint. I therefore decided to take the one hour trip there.
Arriving in Sungai Golok, I expected to find the presence of undercover police and agents. And the best place to look for them is around the bars and night clubs. But alas, their presence could not be noticed--maybe it was late and they had all gone back to their hotels.
The following morning I went to the border checkpoint. Arriving there I noticed the slackness of the place. I took out my camera and began shooting. But to my surprise no one stopped or asked me what I was doing.
I then proceed to the Customs and Immigration Office, showed them my press pass and asked them why the place was still so slack in its security.
An embarrassed Custom Office politely told me to talk to the Tourist Police about the matter--the passing of the buck began.
The Tourist Police shared the same premises with the Tourist Board, but the duty officer was not there.
I explained to the two Tourist Board employees I wanted to know why in light of the so-called JI threat the border checkpoint was still as slack as ever. They also felt embrassed about the whole matter.
And as we were talking, an Irish couple walked in, wanting to know where they were--they have just came from the Malaysian side of the border and was unaware they had already entered Thailand.
'I don't understand,' said Frank, 'I ended up in the Tourist Officer asking for information, to discover I was already in Thailand. I had passed through the border and had not got my passport stamped, had not got my luggage checked and as a result of that I had to walk back down the road again and get through all the formalities.'
The Irish couple had their passport stamped and as for the checking of their luggage, neither the Malaysian nor the Thais bordered to do so.
Two Malaysian--identifying themselves as Henry and Wong when asked if there had been any tightening up of the security on either side of the border said they did not noticed any changes. They have been making regular border crossing.
Meanwhile the duty Tourist Police officer arrived back and told me I should talk to the Custom and Immigration officers about the matter. When I informed him it was them that sent me to see him, he suggested I should raise the matter with the District Officer in town. But when I arrived there, they passed the buck back to Immigration.
Most pundits feels the whole thing is a charade. It has more to do with pleasing George Bush than it has to do with reality. And a well placed sourced from Naratiwat claimed even the army are not convinced there is a JI threat.
Southern Thailand is a beautiful, peaceful and safe place to be but don't take my word for it--check it out for yourself.
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