Officials from Cambodian immigration, law enforcement and diplomatic circles were either unaware of, or unwilling to talk yesterday about, an alleged request from the Thai government to help monitor Cambodian Muslims crossing into the country.
“That is a Thai problem,” said Pin Piseth, head of immigration at the Ministry of Interior, declining to elaborate.
He would not confirm or deny that the government was aiding its neighbour in keeping an eye on Muslims travelling in the days following the end of the holy month of Ramadan.
News of the alleged monitoring surfaced on Monday when Thai Deputy Prime Minister Yutthasak Sasiprapa told the Bangkok Post that thousands of Cambodian Muslims were entering Thailand as “tourists” every day, and that the Immigration Bureau was given instructions to keep tabs on their movements.
He also said that Cambodian authorities would be asked to co-operate. But the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand, You Ay, said she had not received any such requests.
“I don’t know anything, it was a publication in Thai media,” she said.
It’s unclear how the Thais would be able to accurately identify Cambodian Muslims apart from their dress. They account for just a fraction of a predominantly Buddhist population, religious affiliation is not listed on Cambodian passports, and hundreds of thousands of Cambodians travel to Thailand throughout the year.
Khieu Kanharith, the Cambodian Minister of Information, said it’s a matter of religious profiling.
“The Thai government is always speculating about Khmer Muslims who cross into Thailand when there is problem in the south – it is usual,” he said.
Over the past eight years, the south has been a hotspot of brutal violence as insurgents waged a deadly campaign against the government to seek an independent Muslim state.
But Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Cambodian Muslims who cross into Thailand are seeking work, not warfare.
“They don’t have any ill-will purpose. It is speculation on pleasant people,” he said. “When they enter, it is [the Thai] authorities’ duty in checking with them while they stay in Thailand.”
Numerous attempts to reach the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs were unsuccessful.
Members of Muslim communities in Phnom Penh yesterday voiced concern about the perceived targeting of Cambodians who share the Islamic faith.
Chi Ya, 58, in the Chroy Changva village of Russey Keo district, said he was worried about neighbours who go through Thailand to visit family members in Malaysia. If they get arrested based on stereotypes, “that would be bad”.
Haji Yusef, imam of the Al-Azhar mosque in Russey Keo, read about the alleged Thai policy online, but rejected the idea that a fundamentalist strain of Islam existed in Cambodia.
“We have a good network of Khmer Muslims in Cambodia, and if a member of us is suspected to have connections with bad Muslims from outside, we would detain them immediately and hand them over to the government.”