Authorities in the insurgency-stricken Thai Deep South said Thursday they had found no evidence so far to charge 18 Cambodian Muslims in custody over suspected rebel links, but most were indicted for immigration violations.
The 15 men and three boys were picked up during raids since Jan. 28 at two Islamic Pondok schools in Mayo district, Pattani province, on suspicion of training to join separatist insurgents in Thailand’s mainly Muslim southern border region, officials said. They said all 18 would be sent back to Cambodia.
“Whether they have links with the BRN or not, it’s not immediately known. That needs in-depth investigation,” Col. Pramote Prom-in, the spokesman for the Internal Security Operations Command-4 (ISOC-4), the Thai military command in the Deep South, told BenarNews.
He was referring to the National Revolutionary Front (BRN), the most powerful of insurgent groups in the region, which is suspected of carrying out frequent attacks.
Fourteen of the Cambodians were being held at the Pattani Prison while awaiting prosecution over alleged violations of Thai immigration law, including entering the country without proper papers or overstaying their visas, the district police chief in Mayo said.
Of the remaining four, the three minors were confined to a local boys’ home, while a Cambodian man with valid papers was in the care of immigration police, the chief said.
“During military interrogation, they did not show any signs which could lead to us to believe that they support insurgents. They came to learn and hope to have leadership [skills] when they go back home,” Maj. Gen. Piyawat Chalermsri, the Pattani provincial police chief, told BenarNews.
The BRN has battled the Thai military for at least 15 years, demanding direct negotiations with Thailand’s junta in peace talks. Since 2015, hardcore BRN leaders have stayed away from Malaysia-brokered talks between Bangkok and an umbrella body representing various rebel organizations in peace negotiations. Nearly 7,000 people have died since the insurgency flared up again in 2004.
Thai authorities, meanwhile, have cast suspicion on local Pondok schools as possible breeding grounds, training facilities and sources of funding for the insurgents.
The arrests of the Cambodians began on Jan. 28, when Thai security forces rounded up a first batch of 11 while catching them allegedly practicing martial arts and bare-handed fighting late at night in the yard at the Pondok Al-Falah Pattani in Mayo.
The other seven were arrested from another Pondok school in the district on Monday, officials said.
All 18 were interrogated at a military camp before being transferred to police custody on Wednesday, according to the authorities.
That same day, 13 of the Cambodians were indicted at a Pattani municipal court for staying in Thailand after their visas had expired, while a 14th Cambodian was charged for illegal entry.
“We brought them to the municipal court, which indicted them. They will be tried on Friday and Monday and, hopefully, they all can be sent back next week,” Komkrit Srisong, the Mayo police chief, said.
In past years, the Thai government was wary of scores of Cambodian Muslims traveling to the Deep South to study at Pondok schools, according to security officers.
In 2004, Thai authorities shut down the Jihad Witaya School, a Muslim campus in Pattani’s Yaring district, over suspicion that its administrators were allowing insurgents to use its grounds for weapons training.
And early last year, the Thai military investigated the Bakong Pittaya School, accusing campus staff of embezzling state funds to finance violent activities, including a twin bomb attack that injured more than 80 people at a department store in Pattani on May 9, 2017.
After last week’s raid at the Pondok Al-Falah Pattani, the owner’s wife defended the school against the allegations that it could be linked to insurgents.
“I guarantee that this Pondok does not encourage violence, no training for such purposes. They practiced Cambodian traditional sports,” Asdeela Salamae told BenarNews. “But, I admit, those Cambodian students held expired documents.”
Her husband and a Thai student were also interrogated at a military facility but were released without charge, police said.