Last week, Thailand forcibly repatriated over 100 Uighur people to China, where the ethnic minority group is likely to face punishment and retaliation. The decision elicited a backlash from the United States government, the United Nations, and international advocacy organizations who claimed that the Uighurs would be tortured—or worse—after their return. But Thailand insisted that it simply lacked the means to let them stay.
“Do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?” asked Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s military-backed Prime Minister.
Prayuth’s question, however, elided a key consideration: Thailand needs China’s support, and China wanted the Uighurs back.
China’s Persecuted Minority
A Muslim population native to Xinjiang, China’s vast westernmost region, the Uighurs have lived uneasily under Beijing rule since soon after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949. Like the Tibetans, Uighurs claim to be victims of economic discrimination and religious and cultural repression. In recent years, Chinese authorities in Xinjiang have established laws that prohibit Uighur women from wearing veils on their faces, and have discouraged fasting during Ramadan.
Relations between the Uighur and Han Chinese, who now compose nearly half of Xinjiang’s population, are characterized by mistrust and mutual suspicion. In Urumqi and other major cities, Han and Uighur populations live apart in separate communities, and Han officials still command most of the political and economic power in the region.
Conflict between the two has occasionally turned violent. In 2009, ethnic riots in Urumqi claimed nearly 200 lives, and in retaliation the Chinese government shut off Internet access in Xinjiang for months. Since then, the region has endured a cycle of Uighur violence followed by heavy-handed government reaction.
The Horror of Repatriation
As a result, Uighurs often attempt to flee China through one of the many countries located nearby. Those who are lucky make it to Turkey, where they’re granted protection. But those detained in Asia—where many countries enjoy close economic ties with China—often meet a different fate. In 2009, Cambodia agreed to repatriate 20 Uighurs who had applied for asylum despite the objection of international organizations. Two days later, the country signed economic cooperation deals with China worth a combined $1.2 billion.
According to Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, it is very difficult to determine the whereabouts of repatriated refugees within China, which tends to obscure their status. “The Chinese government’s attitude is basically that the Uighurs are citizens, they’re home, and it’s nobody’s business but theirs,” she told me. But those whom outside organizations manage to track down face imprisonment—or worse. According to Human Rights Watch, an Uighur repatriated from Pakistan in 2007 was executed following his return to China.
“The Chinese government has enormous difficulty accepting the idea that people could want to flee it and that they would have legitimate claims for doing so,” said Richardson.
Criticized for condemning Uighurs to an uncertain fate on Wednesday, the Thai government defended itself by saying, effectively, that they could have done much worse. According to Prime Minister Prayuth, China had requested the return of all Uighur refugees—but Bangkok arranged for the majority of them to travel to Turkey.
“This decision was difficult to make,” he said. “It is not like all of a sudden China asks for Uighurs and we just give them back.”
The deportation has strained Thailand’s relationship with Turkey. On Friday, protesters demonstrated at the Thai embassy in Ankara and at a consulate in Istanbul, leading Prayunth to strike a conciliatory note. “Thailand and Turkey are not rivals and we do not want to destroy trade and commerce with Turkey.”
However, Prayunth added, “at the same time, we do not want to destroy the relationship between China and Thailand.”