MAHATHIR Mohamad, the outspoken former Malaysian prime minister, has stoked tensions with Thailand by suggesting that 131 refugees who fled across the border to Malaysia last week "may deserve asylum".
The refugees, who fled to the northern Malaysian state of Kelantan, claim they feared for their lives after Thai soldiers arrived in their village looking for supporters of the insurgents.
Despite Thai protests, the refugees are being interviewed by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees to establish if their claims of harassment by security forces are true.
The Thai Muslims fled after a village imam was killed on August 29. Initially the villagers, including women and children, blocked police from entering the village, believing Government officials were involved in the murder. The Government then threatened to use the new state of emergency decree and the villagers fled to Malaysia.
"I think if the people are real refugees, then we need to give them some asylum," Dr Mahathir said in Kuala Lumpur.
In Bangkok, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra sidestepped the issue at his weekly news conference. "I'm dying to tell you everything I know, but officials have asked me not to address the issue in public because it is very sensitive. So let the foreign ministry and the security agencies work on the case. All I can say is the Government guarantees the safety of all people," Mr Thaksin said.
Dr Mahathir also upset Thai authorities last year by suggesting giving autonomy to Thailand's three Muslim majority provinces, Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat.
"I think it was not a welcome idea as far as the Thais are concerned. I made the suggestions thinking that it would be something that would help solve the problem," he said.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, an expert on southern Thailand at Bangkok's Chulalonghorn University, said that at an international level Malaysia had a position of protecting Muslim citizens, but in practice Malaysia has always co-operated with Thailand.
"Both countries realise they cannot do without the other. But Dr Mahathir no longer has to worry about dealing with the Thais after he makes comments," Dr Panitan said.
Thailand's foreign ministry has dismissed the refugees as a ploy by an insurgent group, the Pattani United Liberation Organisation (Pulo), to show Thailand in a bad international light.
The latest violence in southern Thailand has been going on since January 2004 and more than 800 people have died. - The Age