Thailand, Malaysia plan border wall to halt illegal flow of goods, people

VIENTIANE (Reuters) - Thailand and Malaysia will discuss plans to build a wall along their shared border, Thai officials said on Thursday, a day before Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is set to meet his counterpart in Bangkok. People-trafficking and the smuggling of drugs and weapons are among the transnational crimes that have flourished along the 640-km (398-mile) Thai-Malay border, until a crackdown by Thailand last year disrupted regional trafficking routes. Najib is to meet Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on an official visit that will focus on security cooperation and investment. The wall is on the agenda for the meeting, said a Thai foreign ministry official. "It will be on the agenda during Najib's visit, but it will not be the biggest item on the agenda," foreign ministry spokesman Chinawut Setawat told Reuters at a regional meeting in the Laotian capital of Vientiane. "It is still at the memorandum of understanding phase," said Colonel Yutthanam Petchmuang, a spokesman for Thailand's Internal Security Operations Command. Malaysia's foreign ministry did not respond to a request from Reuters for comment. Najib's visit follows three deadly bomb attacks in southern Thailand over the past month, including a wave of bombs in tourist towns in August that Thai police have linked to Muslim separatists operating in the country's south. The porous Thai-Malay border has also been a site for the smuggling of weapons, drugs and illegal oil. After taking power in a May 2014 coup, Thailand's junta promised what it called a "zero tolerance" policy of human trafficking and launched a nationwide crackdown on vice and crime. In January 2004, a shadowy separatist insurgency by ethnic Malays resurfaced in Thailand, after simmering for decades. Since then, 6,500 people have been killed, says Deep South Watch, a body that monitors the violence. Thailand's three southernmost provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat were once part of an independent Malay Muslim sultanate until they were annexed by Thailand in 1909. Two issues in particular have spurred the interest of Malaysia and Thailand in building a border wall, said Srisompop Jitpiromsri, director of Deep South Watch. "The first is to stop the flow of illegal goods, whether it is petrol, drugs or human trafficking," he told Reuters. "The second reason is that insurgents operating in Thailand regularly cross the border and use Malaysia as a safety base." Yet it remains unclear how far the wall will reduce crime. "There are still many logistical issues to address before building the wall," Srisompop said. "It's a tremendously long area." (Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre in Vientiane; Additional reporting by Cod Satrusayang in Bangkok; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)