Thai army may regret Rohingya comments
Suggestions from Thai military officers linking the influx of Rohingya boatpeople to its southern insurgency raise more questions than answers.
On the surface, there appears little to connect the two. But that has not stopped some senior army officers raising the spectre of such a link to justify policies of detaining the Rohingya before abandoning them back out on the high seas.
Hundreds have died in recent weeks, with survivors washing ashore on India's Andaman Islands telling security officials of being beaten, forced out of Thailand at gunpoint and abandoned on the high seas in unpowered boats.
Asked about reports that the army feared the waves of Rohingya were headed to the southern insurgency, Colonel Sangob Naktanom repeated the same line.
'We in the army have to ask why they come here,' he said at an army base outside Ranong on the Andaman coast, where the Rohingya wash ashore after crossing from Myanmar and Bangladesh.
'They are all young and strong men.'
Given the complexities across southern Thailand, it seems like a risky move.
The Rohingya are a stateless Muslim tribe with a long history of persecution and economic deprivation in Myanmar's isolated Arakan region. Many initially fled to Bangladesh but are not welcome there either, and some 20,000 still languish in camps.
Thailand's southern insurgency is, of course, Islamic too.
But beyond that, regional security analysts are scratching their heads to draw a connection.
The separatist bloodshed in the three border provinces of the deep south has its own distinct character - including the fact that the insurgents seem determined to keep it thoroughly local. There has been little to connect the insurgency to regional and international terrorist groups. They have also shown no signs of spreading the bloodshed outside of their homeland and, cryptically, have yet to offer a public face or issue formal demands.
The three southern provinces are home to a Muslim majority in an otherwise devoutly Buddhist country and were once part of the ancient Islamic sultanate of Pattani.
For centuries, the southern Muslims have rubbed along with Buddhist Thai and Chinese - a tolerance threatened by five years in which a long-simmering conflict has got decidedly hotter.
It is war in the shadows, a consistent and co-ordinated pattern of small-scale bombings, arsons, shootings and beheadings. Teachers and Muslim workers linked to the government have been among the victims. Some 3,500 people have been killed in four years.
The Thai army has struggled to contain the insurgency, deploying both cold steel and softer approaches. It is not helped by the fact the government has yet to pinpoint the movement's leadership, much less open any meaningful channel of communications.
The climate of fear, relatively little development and tourist infrastructure makes the deep south feel like a world apart from the rest of the Land of Smiles.
Even the southern tourist hub of Phuket and the Andaman coast is 400km to the north. The Andaman coast is also home to many old Muslim villages but has not been plagued by the violence and suspicion of the deep south. Muslims, Thais and ethnic Chinese live cheek-by-jowl in apparent harmony. An old tin mining and rubber growing area, tourism has added to the sense of relative prosperity.
Already there is muttering in Muslim villages that the army is being too tough on the Rohingya and the way future arrivals are dealt with will be closely watched. Linking them to the southern violence is unlikely to play well either. At this point, any hasty connection to a determinedly self-contained insurgency and on-going heavy-handedness seems like a dangerous game, indeed.