Policing Islamic schools to secure the state
Insurgent groups are using 'ponoh' institutions in the South as training camps
Immigration Bureau (IB) is planning to meet representatives from more than 600 privately-run Islamic schools -- <i>ponoh</i> -- in Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Songkhla, after reports emerged that hundreds of Cambodian students have been studying illegally in the schools.
The meeting -- which is expected to happen in a fortnight -- is intended as a forum for the IB to listen to the school operators' opinions and improve their understanding of the importance of adhering to immigration laws, said IB chief Pol Lt Gen Surachate Hakparn.
"We are glad that students from neighbouring countries are coming here for their religious education, because we know that Cambodia does not yet have a proper Islamic school," he said.
Pol Lt Gen Surachate stressed that every student must be admitted through legal channels. "We are not saying Cambodians are coming to cause problems in our country, but if they overstay, immigration police have to arrest them and follow the laws," he added.
Islamic schools are called ponoh in Thai and pondok in Malay. In the west, the schools are generally called madrassa.
Late last month, 11 male Cambodian Muslims aged between 16 and 29 were detained after a raid at Mudrolatulfalah school. They were later deported back to their country for overstaying their visas. Most of them came through the checkpoint in Sa Kaeo, while a few of them came via the checkpoint in Songkhla. One did not have any travel or identification documents.
The raid was carried out after security authorities were alerted to concerns about the school's physical training programme, which was carried out at night.
A security source, who asked not to be named, said the school had a history of providing accommodation to southern insurgents and the training programme it offered to the students was actually unarmed combat training. It is not clear what was offered in this case to the students who were deported.
The handling of the schools by Bangkok-base authorities will be closely watched by residents of the southernmost provinces. A wrong step risks a new round of ill will and a popular propaganda talking point against the central government.
The 2006 closure, followed by the 2016 seizure of Jihad Witaya pondok in Pattani's Yaring district triggered mass resentment of Bangkok authorities throughout the deep South.
The storied Islamic boarding school was accused by the military regime of hosting terrorist training by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) before the outbreak of separatist violence in 2004.
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Generally, insurgents lure their targets with promises of physical training and education.
The targets are assigned simple tasks, such as spraying messages in public places, scattering spikes on roads or cutting down trees to be used as roadblocks, the source said.
More complicated tasks -- for example, arson attacks -- are assigned later, as a test of mental fortitude. Only upon passing will the youths be sent to learn about firearms and explosives, said the source.
In the wake of the deportation of the Cambodian Muslim students, Pol Lt Gen Surachate said all immigration units across the country have been ordered to step up measures to screen suspicious travellers.
The Education Ministry has also launched a survey to record the number of Cambodian Muslims studying in Islamic schools across the South.
While official numbers are not yet available, some estimates put the number at around several hundred, the source said.
The schools are now required to submit detailed reports of every enrolled Cambodian student to the ministry, which includes emergency contact details, next-of-kin information and immigration documents.
While the Cambodians detained in the raid were only charged with illegal entry and overstaying their visas, the army is aware that a certain insurgent group is trying to court young Cambodian Muslims into its ranks, said the source.
Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN) have been recruiting children as young as 12 years old in an attempt to build up a new guerilla force, the source claimed.
Codenamed Permuda, BRN claims the force already has more than 60,000 supporters, the source added.
The BRN is also asking its supporters in the deep South to abstain by voting "No" in the election, so that it can use the "No" tally to estimate its support in future peace talks with the government, the source added.