Sunday, July 10, 2011

Naming of Thailand on new US terror risk list

A recent announcement by the US Department of Homeland Security said that Thailand will be on a new terrorism-risk list. The department has classified Thailand among countries that are known to "promote, produce or protect terrorist organisations or their members".

Spokeswoman for the department Gillian Christensen said in a written statement that countries "may have been included on the list because of the backgrounds of arrestees, not because of the country's government itself".

Along with Thailand, three other US allies placed on the risk list are Egypt, Israel and the Philippines. In all there are 36 countries on this list of so-called Specially Designated Countries (SDCs) that "promote, produce, or protect terrorists".

Citizens from countries on this list who wish to travel to the US will be required to submit to a new "Third Agency Check". In real terms, it could very well mean additional security check or possibly stricter rules for Thai citizens requesting visas to the US.

Already there are numerous complaints about the difficulty of getting just a visa appointment with the US Embassy personnel. The red tape, the waiting list and the humiliating feeling of being rejected are some of the usual complaints. So much that Note Udom, a well known Thai comedian, even jokes about it.

As of now, what we know is that, according to the Department of Homeland Security, "The purpose of the additional screening is to determine whether other agencies have an interest in the alien."

Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongphakdi was reported as saying he was "surprised", because Thailand has consistently cooperated with the US on counter-terrorism efforts.

While no one can say that this will make Thailand look good, the government should be realistic about it. The list is not a criticism of the government's effort or handling of the global war on terrorism. It basically said there were activities in the 36 countries that needed watching.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, the then Thai government took a very selfish approach, maintaining that there were no terrorist cells operating in the country. The same line was employed even in the aftermath of the October 2002 terrorist attacks in Bali. The attack killed 202 people. While Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines were hunting down members of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Southeast Asia-based terrorist organisation, Thailand presented itself as being above it all, as if the country were, for some strange reason, an exception.

Thailand's denial was influenced by the government desire for tourist money. Our leaders understood the negative consequences, so they stood firm, insisting that Thailand was not a safe haven for international terrorists, following exposure in a string of Western media.

And then all of a sudden, in June 2003, Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra dropped a bomb, announcing the arrest of three Thai citizens accused of being JI members. It came as a big surprise to many, given the fact that Thailand had consistently dismissed mounting reports in the local and international media linking the country to global terrorism. The charges against the three were eventually dropped on the ground of insufficient evidence.

The fact that the announcement came on the eve of Thaksin's meeting with US President George W Bush, however, raised the question of whether the prime minister was doing the right thing for wrong reasons.

And then in August 2003, Hambali, a JI operative who is also a member of al Qaeda, was arrested in Ayutthya in a pre-dawn raid by Thai Special Branch and American CIA agents. The event was testimony to the fact that Thailand was no different and just as vulnerable as any other country in the region.

Today, we are living in a world where counter-terrorism measures have affected all of us. Longer queues at immigration counters, lengthy security checks at airports, and the profiling of citizens from various countries. It's no longer the action of a government that dictates the policy of another country. Terrorists know no borders and the recent US terrorism risk list is a sad reflection of the world we live in. The Nation, Bangkok

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