Why Thailand Returned the Uyghurs

The move, condemned by the UN, reflects an increasing alignment.

Why Thailand Returned the Uyghurs
Credit: Todenhoff

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently challenged Thailand’s repatriations of Uyghurs to China. This act, under international law could be termed refoulement, the return of a victim to their persecutor. Why would Thailand do this? The answer reflects both a long-term reality and a new political commonality.

Firstly, the long-term trend. Uyghurs are generally Muslim. In Thailand, Islam is a minority faith but one that sits within an explicit political context. Although only around 6 percent of the population identifies as Muslim, an insurgency in southern Thailand has run for 55 years. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha was revealing when he said, “do you want us to keep them here for ages until they have children for three generations.” The decision to send the Uyghurs back to China was driven at least in part of Thailand’s fear of its own Islamic population.

The narrative taken by The Atlantic’s Matt Schiavenza focuses on the economic relationship between China and Thailand as an explanation for the decision to return Uyghur refugees to China. On this view, Thailand is essentially without leverage and China gets what it wants essentially through economic compulsion. There is more than a hint of truth to this, and Prayut certainly spoke to it when he said of his decision “we do not want to destroy the relationship between Thailand and China.” This conclusion is compelling, but it is not the whole story. The long-term shared reality of ethnographic tensions between majority populations and minorities on the periphery also played a part.

Uyghurs in China are a major ethnic group in China’s Xinjiang province and they have been oppressed continuously by the government there since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. China claims that space as its own, a claim that is hard for the people who live there to accept since they had little say in it and generally face a large degree of cultural, economic and religious persecution. The insurgency in Southern Thailand fits a similar narrative. Southern Thailand has no clear border with Malaysia and as China’s west blends into a predominantly Muslim Central Asia, so does Thailand to its south. As a result, the two states have a fair degree in common when it comes to describing their respective conflicts, the people who live there, and what they represent. This creates a common understanding of what the prevailing international norms should be.

That is not the only similarity. The present governments of China and Thailand share an understanding of their place within society. Although the Communist Party of China has been in power since 1949, the Thai military sees itself serving a similar nondemocratic “we know best” role within society. Since the fall of the populist Shinawatra family in Thailand and its replacement via a coup led by the former general Prayut, the Thai government now has more in common with its Chinese counterpart than it did before the coup. This coup is likely pushing those states into closer alignment as Thailand seeks support as it faces significant diplomatic pressure to return to democracy. The economy of Thailand is also struggling and China has a lot of money to offer. As a result, it makes sense for both states to move into closer relations while they have their respective governments.

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Thailand’s government, for so long as it is in power and nondemocratic, will face an uphill fight aligning itself with international norms that would facilitate easy relations with more normative powers. This is especially the case since the government, while presently in power, is not guaranteed to be there forever. Thailand has been through a number of governments and has developed a reputation for coups. Democratic states thus have every reason to think that time and pressure will take things in a more favorable direction. China, on the other hand, will seek to benefit from this government. It makes sense for Beijing to seek to invest in Thailand, from which it can expect to extract a dividend due to the nature of the government in Bangkok and the pressure the struggling Thai economy will place on it. As a result, it is premature to call the return of Uyghur refugees from Thailand to China an act of compulsion; it is, when seen from the perspective of shared history and present governments, an act of friendship between two states that are moving closer together.

Robert Potter is currently assisting with research at the Kennedy School. Previously he was a visiting scholar at Columbia and a student at Cornell. He took part in a research  program in North Korea and China in 2013.