Why the great wall of Southeast Asia would not stop terrorism

Prime ministers Najib and Prayuth are discussing a 640km wall along the Thai-Malaysian border to keep a lid on the illegal flow of goods and people.

By Holly Reeves

Politics used to be about building bridges; today, we build walls. The annual consultation between Thailand and Malaysia last week brought many positive developments; promises to tackle human trafficking, agreement on the need for a Bangkok-Kuala Lumpur high-speed train service and plans to push further in trading relationships which could hit $30 billion by 2018.

One announcement is more worrying, a mutual understanding on building a wall along over 600km of the border between the two countries. At a press conference after the talks Malaysian Prime Minister Najib, said the future of Malaysia and Thailand, as close neighbours, was intertwined. “The future of our countries are inseparable.” But since when did bringing countries together involve building physical barriers to keep the people of the two apart?

Better connected

Two issues, in particular, are behind the discussions says Srisompop Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch, a Southern Thailand monitoring group. “The first is to stop the flow of illegal goods, whether it is petrol, drugs or human trafficking,” he said. “The second reason is that insurgents operating in Thailand regularly cross the border and use Malaysia as a safety base.”

The problem of unrest in the South has plagued successive Thai governments and offers an unwelcome melting pot for Islamic insurgency right on the doorstep of Malaysian leaders. As such, measures to combat international terrorism were a key part of this year’s discussions; particularly since the ferocity of terrorist incidents in these areas seems to be increasing. The most recent attack killed a five-year-old girl and her father in Narathiwat’s Tak Bai district

It is very important for us to work on confidence-building measures in the South,” Najib said after his talks with the Thai general, adding that, “We will continue to work closely together to combat the threat of global terrorism, human trafficking and transnational crime, including violent extremism.” He also touched on the key problem, that “some of the perpetrators, [allegedly groups such as Runda Kumpulan Kecil] move between our two countries.” But cracking down on border movements does not bring peace. Brush the problem under the carpet and it soon springs up somewhere else.

On a more positive note, the two leaders believe their border can be a greater source of prosperity. Alongside a high-speed rail link between the two capital cities, there were also suggestions about building better roads and bridges, as well as faster, smoother customs procedures to more easily move goods between the two nations. Bilateral trade between the two is currently around $21 billion; this could reach $30 billion within two years thanks to rice imports and tourism promotion. These concrete steps, not concrete walls, are the things that build stable nations.

Constructing failure

It cannot be said enough that a wall is not an answer. Not the wall the French are using to keep migrants penned into Calais refugee camps and away from the border port. Not the wall Donald Trump proposes to build along the US-Mexico border. And not the wall that Prayuth proposes either.

Looking at existing provisions, the Bukit Kayu Hitam crossing point is just one of the existing spots that have received increased surveillance under the military government. However, the situation appeared to be worsening with migrants and smugglers just upping their game to make their way through, “even the brick wall has a hole punched through and anyone can get through it,” say reports. And if one small location cannot be effectively protected, how can both governments scale up to 640km of a wall to look after?

A more crucial point is that physical barriers do not solve political problems. Turning people away, in particular vulnerable groups such as trafficked women or young men seeking work, also distances them from the establishment, the normal, the ability to live and let others live as part of regular society. Instead, efforts such as the Joint Development Strategy for Border Areas, which sees authorities on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian divide offer training to people like single mothers and youths in Southern Thailand, should be the focus. This reduces extremism through relationships and opportunity; not aggressive division.

It feels ironic that the Prayuth-Najib discussions came just as their two countries are celebrating sixty years of diplomatic relations. As founding members of ASEAN both have worked to bring the people and nations of the region closer together. Reversing this new, and international, trend towards separation is the only way to quell existing and future conflict. Let us go back to the old ways – let us not build walls, let us build bridges. What we’re actually building is a stable future.