To many of us crossing land borders are of wonders, mysteries, and excitements. It’s a burgeoning experience coupled with uncertainties. Some people love it, some hated it. Airports’ borders in Thailand and Malaysia are basically very organized and secure without much frills, but full of professionalism and surveillance. Security is considered a serious responsibility for all travellers as the airlines, IATA organization, national governments, etc., ensure that there will be untoward happenings after a series of hijackings, terrorisms, crimes, etc., that plagued airlines and airports. We can seriously say that airports’ security are one of the best managed, anywhere in the world, except those troubled hotspots nations.
That said, however, it’s not the case for land borders.
Land borders are plagued with surveillance and disciplinary issues. There are many concerns about land borders immigration and security. One of the reasons why a country like Malaysia with serious weapon laws and controls, have weapons regularly turn up in the country illegally. Another area of serious breaches of immigration and security issues, is the trafficking of human beings, either for labor or migration. Middlemen (on both sides of the border) will certainly take control of these illegal opportunities to make quick bucks and become rich instantly. On July 18, 2017, a very senior army general, two provincial politicians, and police officers were among the 62 people found guilty of human trafficking in Thailand. One of the individuals responsible for the dozens of murders in the mass graves is a Rohingya by the name of Soe Naing, aka Anwar. Most of these dead are Rohingyas running or fleeing their homelands from political persecutions, genocides, and/or discriminatory practices of the Burmese government. Many viewed that Malaysia would have given them hope and a second chance in life. Anwar, a supposedly good talker and salespersons, for “immigration” offered that senseless hope. As they reached the Thai-Malaysian border between Wang Prachan (in Satun province, in Thailand) and Wang Kelian (in the state of Perlis, Malaysia), they were unable to cross into the jungles as authorities have rigidly implemented protocols and controls. Another issue that’s of real concern was that many of these immigrants were duped and many had to fully pay for their crossings, and thus they were made to stay before crossing into Malaysia. As they had no choice and as illegals in Thailand as well, they built makeshift camps not far from the border (in the jungle). When their families were unable to come with their payments, these desperate immigrants were murdered and dumped in mass graves. Unfortunately, these immigrants did not know that they were actually in Malaysia already, as majority of these mass graves were found just slightly Northwest of Wang Kelian. The human trafficking case caused a major embarrassment to designate Prime Minister Chan O’ Cha of Thailand. It also created a major international uproar and the then Obama Administration decided to downgrade and highlighted Thailand as a major human trafficking nation. Relations between US and Thailand was at a low ebb since.
Thailand has yet to fully meet the minimum standards of human trafficking and thus they are still within the realm of Tier 2 on the US Human Trafficking Watchlist. Since June 2017, Malaysia has been taken off the watchlist, however, as a precaution and monitoring the US decided to emplace Malaysia under the Tier 2 list.
I am not applauding my efforts for Malaysia right now because I think there are still many issues facing the country’s borders. Despite Prime Minister Tan Sri Najib Tun Razak has promised to enhanced border securities, it’s still lagging somewhat behind.
In September 2016, the Prime Ministers of both Thailand and Malaysia agreed to building a wall to stop human trafficking, drug trafficking, weapons smuggling, and illegal cross border trade and smuggling. These had yet to materialize, however, because building building a border wall requires humongous resources and the need for true feasibility studies of what entails in the strategies and not just with a wall to prevent illegal immigration. When US President Donald Trump wanted to build a wall, he came to the realization that a wall need not be a wall because a defensive and reliable fencing coupled with surveillance solutions really are much cheaper way then building a wall. From the Israeli experience as well, its not necessarily that a wall can stop breaches of sorts because desperate persons can still tunnel beneath a wall.
The most important question is how do we actually resolve security immigration issues?
Despite earlier, this article pointed out the importance of surveillance and disciplinary issues, the real resolve is still the discipline and how land border control officials view this perspective. Do they have a lackadaisical attitude and just go about their jobs or do they want to do this seriously as pride and their actions and implications (here within and as stakeholders) can translate the whole security network in a more solidifying presence.
Today, I visited the Malaysian and Thai border between Pengkalan Kubor (just off Tumpat in the state of Kelantan, on the Malaysian Northeast) and Tak Bai, in the province of Narathiwat, Thailand.
The Southern provinces of Jala, Narathiwat, Pattani, and Songkhla are not in the best of terms with the rest of Thailand. These Southern provinces were once part of the Malay Sultanate states but when the British came, they agreed with the King of Siam (then) in exchange of land borders and thereby, Perak, the then Province Wellesley (Butterworth), Penang, Kedah, etc., became part of the British Administration. Hence, Siam (Thailand) would hold on to Singgora (Songkhla), Pattani, Satun, Narathiwat, and Yala. But even before the British agreements, many provinces in Southern Siam and that included the Northern Malay states paid honorary revenues and taxes to the King of Siam. During the Second World War, after the defeat of the British Administration in Malaya, the Japanese apparently handed over the Northern Malay states (of Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah, Perak, and Penang) to Siam for administration and control. After the war, the Northern states were returned to Colonial Britain. That said, Southern provinces in Thailand were pretty much of Malay identity rather than that of the Siamese influence. Islam is the stronghold’s influence and not Buddhism. In the hardcore provinces of Narathiwat, Jala, and Pattani, many Thai Muslims still identify themselves as Malay Muslims rather than Thai Muslims.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Thailand wanted to indoctrinate the Southern Thais and shifting their attributes stealthily away from mainstream Islamization to Buddhanization. Another manner that’s practiced in many countries trying to whitewash a mainstream society is to encourage Northern Thais, Northeastern Thais, and Khmer Thais to move to the Southern provinces to do their business. As the weather in the Southern provinces are conducive and the land aplenty for agriculture, numerous business opportunities, and the advent of communism and socialism in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam (during the 50s, 60s, and 70s), these Thais moved in numbers especially to the less hardcore provinces like Trang, Phatthalung, Krabi, Phuket, Surat Thani, Songkhla, Satun, and Ranong. The indoctrination was so invasive and stealthy that Muslims in these provinces shifted their religious stance from being Muslims to being Buddhists. Many hardcore Southern provinces Muslims, where they practiced a serious sort of Sunni Wahhabism refused to adhere to such demands and thus many shifted to political strifes, by way of rebellion and causing troubles. And the result, a guerrilla war ensued. Till this day, the war is ongoing but somewhat less as before because the Thai government made serious strides to recognize the rights of Malay Muslims. Today, the three provinces are given conditional autonomies but still the Thai government dictate the policies in the provinces. As such, with these conditional policies, many Muslims in the Southern provinces are still unhappy.
On October 25, 2004, 85 Muslim residents in Tak Bai were massacred. The incident began when 1,500 residents from various parts of the three Malay Muslim provinces came to demonstrate against the detention of so-called 6 suspects, who were alleged to have given weapons to militants in the fight against the Thai military. The protests went awry when the protestors were cornered by the leaders of the protesters and the enforcement authorities. Gun fires were heard firing at the protesters but that didn’t contribute to their demise. What contributed was when the protesters were forced to lie face down and thus with the many bodies on top of each other, the ones near the bottom or at the bottom were suffocated and asphyxiated and that resulted in their deaths. In retaliation for the deaths of the Tak Bai protesters, a deputy police chief, senior officials, buddhist monks, teachers, and innocent Thais and even visiting Malaysians were targeted for a period of some years. Today, and just a couple of weeks ago, there was a bomb that went off at Sungai Kolok, Narathiwat.
So what’s this got to do with human trafficking? The problem here is because of these rebellion, strifes, and wanting independence and in retaliation from the Thai government, the apprehension of economic development, communique with the militants and political bodies, and the impositions of curfews and strict surveillances in many parts of Southern Thailand via many road blocks and identification checks and profilings concocted uneasiness for many Southern Thais who just want to have normal livelihoods but found their homeland unsustainable. Majority are Muslims and being Muslims (in the past) forged a stigma in their livelihoods. In the past, when these Muslims went to Central, Northern, Western or Northeastern Thailand, they were being discriminated. It’s only when the late King Bhumibol saw these indifferences advised the various Thai Governments to forge a policy of inclusion and regard Thais not just as one religion but of multiple represented religions. Despite many efforts from the various administration sought to include the diversities in Thai education, many Muslim parents refused to send their children to attend Thai national schools because of the (fearful) indoctrination towards changing their faiths or identities, and as such they send them to Madrasahs or Islamic schools known as “sekolah pondok”. These “sekolah pondoks” ran with minimal funds supplied from generous Islamic religious charities via the ‘zakat’ or Islamic welfare payments.
Many of these communities in Southern Thailand have problems of assimilation because of their religion, ethnicity, as well as their language. Despite many Malay Muslims do speak Thai as their mother tongue, but within their vicinities and communities and families, they prefer their own ethnic language which is not entirely Malay but more of a similarity to that Kelantanese Jawi language. Most don’t read the alphabet form of the language but more of the Jawi traditional language that’s a return in the form of Arabic. Hence, because of that similarities with the Malay language in Malaysia, they tend to comprehend and understand Malaysia better than Thailand. Moreover, their relations transcends on both sides of the borders because in the past, these parts are part of the similar administration or perhaps a similar sultanate. As such the willingness to come to Malaysia is more of a desirable need than going up to Bangkok or other parts of Thailand.
Since the Tak Bai incident, many Southern Thais have sought refuge in Malaysia. However, since the state of Kelantan is under the administration of Party Islam Se Malaysia (PAS) since the 1990s, it seemed that perhaps PAS is more amenable to the plight of these Southern Thais’ sufferings. When the Tak Bai incident broke and the tit-for-tat retaliations, many of these militants at one point of time sought refuge in the state of Kelantan. As such, these happenings are not just coincidences and hence, the borders have become a relatively way to make fugitive runs either from crimes or human rights issues. It’s not only for fugitives coming in from Thailand, but it’s also a way criminals from Malaysia sought refuge in Southern parts of Thailand as well. Well, during the Communist insurgency in Malaya, many Malaysian Chinese Communists like Chin Peng sought refuge in the jungles of Southern Thailand, and if one today visited Betong, Jala, there is an elaborate underground tunnel (ran by Malayan Communists) that’s a museum of sorts today.
Today the Malaysian-Thai border is not only a fugitive run; the porous border has become a heaven for drug smuggling, human trafficking, weapons smuggling, and goods smuggling like cigarettes, cooking oil and at one point petroleum.
So what’s happening today at Tak Bai and Pengkalan Kubor? Well, there’s a proper way to go to Thailand and Malaysia and there’s an improper way vice versa. The proper way is the individual produced the necessary papers at the egress and ingress immigration checkpoints to have his or her documents checked and bags scanned. The improper way is to avoid the checkpoints, take an inordinate route by immigrant runners and pay a fee. This improper route does not require any documentations but the individuals are on their own risks. Most times they are able to get through this without any aforethought because everyone (including to a certain extent) authorities are paid as well. The whole process is silent and as long as the individual follows without question asked, everything’s alright.
At Tat Bai, so-called long tail boats (they are not as long tail as the ones in Krabi or other parts of Thailand because of the culture here) but the boats have long tail motor propellers and as such they are definitely Thais. They traversed from some inordinate (or secluded) route from one end of Malaysia to the pier at Tat Bai. The Thai immigration office here is located about some 250 metres from the pier. Apparently, there’s an immigration office at the steps of the pier but somehow it’s defunct! So if you are a Malaysian or Thai and don’t have the documentation you can just basically disappeared into Narathiwat or Thailand, because you don’t have to report to the immigration office which is a way away.
As such, I decided not to report to the Thai immigration office because I didn’t want to fill up a silly immigration card that detailed the stay for two weeks in Thailand without a visa (even those that required a visa they are also required to fill up the visitation card). So after my three hours recce and rests at Tak Bai, I decided to return to Pengkalan Kubor at the Malaysian side. But to my dismay, the Malaysian authorities decided to check on the stamps from the Thai immigration side and discovered non. I was asked to return to get the chops before returning to Malaysia. Initially, I tried to argue but thought best not to because in order to be a responsible individual, its best to be steadfast on a policy rather than question it. I did the necessary and the Malaysian authorities were happy.
What irks me was that, here the Malaysian authorities were steadfast in the stamps from the immigration of Thailand, but they have yet to notice so many Thais and Malaysians living across the borders just used the inordinate crossings without even having the required documentations. Giving the problems we have recently about the trafficking of persons, gun smugglings, and the recent killing of a prominent Palestinian academic in Kuala Lumpur, I have no forgivings at all on how our land borders are enforced and how these so-called immigration officers think they are doing their jobs but they just turned blind eyes on how these inordinate crossings are happening daily.
I am traveller with tales and I prefer that authorities know what they are doing and not take advantage on responsible holiday or business travellers that travel the right way and not taking advantage of the system. I do hope that the Malaysian and Thai government seriously rectify all these faults and defeat these illegal and unnecessary border crossings.