The Cambodian government has arrested three foreigners on charges of having links to international terrorism. It is the first such case in Cambodia and comes two weeks before a major international conference convenes in Phnom Penh.
A judge in the Cambodian capital charged three men with being members of the international terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah. The group is accused of masterminding the bomb attacks last October on the Indonesian island of Bali.
A senior official said the suspects, one Egyptian and two Thais, had transferred money from abroad into a Cambodian bank account to fund terrorist plots. He said the suspects have been linked to a Cambodian Muslim organization called Om Al-Qura, which operates a religious school near the capital.
Twenty-eight foreign teachers at the school were also ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. The teachers reportedly come from Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, and Yemen.
Cambodian officials said they have foiled a radical Islamic network, weeks before foreign ministers from Asia, Europe, and the United States are due to gather to discuss international terrorism and other issues.
Authorities in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia have arrested scores of alleged Jemaah Islamiyah members and sympathizers. But until this week no arrests had been reported in Cambodia or Thailand, despite warnings from experts that terrorist cells are active across the region.
Jemaah Islamiyah seeks to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia and has been linked to the al-Qaida network. In addition to the Bali bombings, it has been accused of masterminding dozens of regional attacks and its reported leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, is currently on trial in Indonesia on terrorism charges.
Nevertheless, political analysts in Phnom Penh expressed surprise over the arrests, saying they did not know of any terrorist activity in the country.
A professor at southern Thailand's Pattani Prince of Songkla University, Pirayot Rohinngula, acknowledges there was talk decades ago about creating a Muslim state in parts of Thailand, Cambodia, and Malaysia, but says this has largely disappeared.
"Some religious leaders in the past, about 60 or 80 years ago, they had some idea to separate southern Thailand as an independent state. Even some, they want to join with Selantan state, Terranganu, and Cambodia and become an Islamic state. It was an old story," he said.
Professor Pirayot said there are traditional ties between Muslims in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia. And he notes several Muslim groups staged attacks in southern Thailand in the 1970s and '80s. But he said these were primarily to protest discrimination and a lack of jobs.
He said, separatist sentiment has waned because Muslims have gained voices in government and greater access to jobs and social services.