On Thursday, Thailand confirmed that it had deported more than 100 Uyghurs to China. While such deportations are fairly routine, the sheer number drew international attention from human rights groups and the Turkic-speaking community, particularly in Turkey. In Istanbul, Thailand was forced to close its consulate after protesters stormed in, the BBC reports that the embassy in Ankara was also closed as of Friday. Protesters clashed with police outside the Chinese embassy as well.
In March 2014, Thailand detained over 200 Uyghurs who had reportedly been living in a jungle camp in Songkhla province. “Once Thai authorities caught them, they claimed Turkish citizenship, but China said that they are Chinese so there was something of a custody dispute,” Thomas Nelson, an independent researcher and author of Uyghur Update, told The Diplomat.
Last month the custody battle began to end. Roughly 170 of the Uyghurs were sent to Turkey after more than a year in detention. Turkey, Nelson commented, has been fairly hospitable toward the Uyghurs in the past–they share a religion, as well as ethnic and linguistic ties that stretch from Turkey across Central Asia into Xinjiang, in western China.
“Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uyghur Muslim problem,” Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, Thailand’s deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday, “We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality.”
The United States, the UN refugee agency, and several human rights organizations condemned Thailand’s deportations. U.S. State Department spokesman, John Kirby, said that in China the deported “could face harsh treatment and a lack of due process.”
Human Rights Watch China Director Sophie Richardson, was unequivocal in assessing Thailand’s actions. “Thailand has cravenly caved to pressure from Beijing and robbed these people of their only protections,” she said in a statement. “The risks to Uighurs forcibly returned to China are grim and well established, so it’s urgent to protect anyone in Thailand who the Chinese claims is a Uighur against forced expulsion or return.”
Volker Türk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection called the deportation “a flagrant violation of international law.”
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a general who seized power in a coup last year, didn’t seem concerned about the fate of Uyghurs, telling reporters,“If we send them back (to China) and there is a problem that is not our fault.” But, critics are quick to point out, Thailand is a signatory of the UN Convention Against Torture, which bars governments from forcibly returning individuals to countries where there is reason to believe they will be tortured or otherwise treated inhumanely.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, said Friday that the “deportation of these illegal smugglers agreed by China and Thailand according to relevant international conventions and bilateral cooperation treaties is normal cooperation between countries on combating illegal smuggling and immigration.” She went on to accuse foreign governments and “forces” of politicizing the issue.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia Division told the Bangkok Post that “For reasons of realpolitik, Bangkok callously treated these Uighurs as expendable pawns to be sacrificed to big brother China in clear violation of international rights standards.”
Since the coup in May 2014, Thailand has drawn considerable international criticism. Meanwhile, China seems to be interested in developing closer ties. Last week, Thailand’s navy voted to purchase three Chinese submarines worth $1 billion. As Prashanth Parameswaran wrote for The Diplomat in late June, the submarines would be Thailand’s first since 1951 and “is likely to be read by some as another sign that Thailand is leaning closer towards China.”
The deportation of the Uyghurs in conjunction with the settling of the submarine deal certainly reinforces the idea. And in a testament to the multivariate nature of geopolitics, the anti-Chinese backlash in Turkey with regard to the deportation has dovetailed with previous outrage aimed at China’s ban on Ramadan fasting in Xinjiang. Earlier in the week, before news of the deportations, China issued a travel warning to its citizens in Turkey. The consulate in Istanbul was already dealing with hundreds protesters over last weekend.
Nelson told The Diplomat that there “were protests a few days ago at a Chinese restaurant in Taksim [Square] to show anger of China’s Ramadan ban.” It was a bit of a mess, he said, “allegedly the restaurant is actually owned by Uyghurs, one of whom was beaten by the protesters, and the demo organizers have some unsavory connections. But the Thai embassy protests are happening in an environment of heightened political activity in Turkey around the persecution of Uyghurs.”