Recent reports of Uyghur Muslims, wilting away in Thai detention facilities, bring back memories – and not good ones, as they serve as reminders of Thailand’s past mistakes of kowtowing to China. The ethnic minority, originating from China’s western region of Xinjiang, has been the subject of many reports by human rights organizations, most recently the long-awaited and much-delayed report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), which detailed violations of grave abuses, from torture and forced labor to mass arbitrary detention in internment camps.
For years, many of China’s Uyghurs fled the Xinjiang region to escape persecution, with many crossing into mainland Southeast Asia. However, many of those who traveled by land across southern China and Myanmar into Thailand have ended up in detention centers, with the constant threat of being sent back to China by the Thai government. Reports suggest that as many as 50-60 Uyghurs are currently being held across the country. Back in June, human rights groups urged the Thai government not to send any of these people back to China. Here, however, the past is likely a prologue of future events.
Thailand’s ongoing issues with the Uyghurs currently in detention are partly due to two reasons: its decades-long difficulties with its own Muslim population, and its habit of deferring to China on issues it deems unimportant to its own national security. The saga of more than 200 Uyghur Muslims, detained from a human trafficking camp in the southern Thai province of Songkhla in 2014 is illustrative of these tendencies.
Similar to recent events, those detained feared deportation and international agencies such as the U.N. refugee agency warned Thailand to err on the side of caution and to uphold its obligations under international law. But, in July 2015, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha’s government deported 109 Uyghurs at China’s request. Prayut’s response was ice cold, nearly denying that Thailand was returning the group to China, noting that it wasn’t Thailand’s problem, and asking rhetorically, “[Do] you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”
The response from the international community was tough but predictable and also unnerved minority communities in both Thailand and Turkey. Violent clashes erupted in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. Thailand temporarily closed its embassy. Prayut was cautious not to disrupt bilateral relations with Turkey or China and was less concerned about the safety of the Uyghurs after deportation, telling reporters, “If we send them back and there is a problem, that is not our fault.”
Thailand’s disregard for the safety of those it has deported reflects the treatment of its own Malay-Muslim population in its southern provinces. Complaints about how Thai security forces have treated those it believes are involved in its southern insurgency are commonplace. The 2016 case of Eroheng Salilatae, who was brutally beaten by soldiers after his house in Pattani was raided by the Royal Thai Army’s 43rd Taharn Pran Unit, who allegedly punched and kicked him, demanding that he confess to providing a hiding place for insurgents and being the owner of two AK-47 assault rifles that soldiers claimed they found outside his home. During interrogation, they struck him in the chest with rifle butts. Equally common is the complaint that the heavy-handed Thai government treats its Muslim population as second-class citizens, which fuels political and social unrest.
Whether it was appeasement of Beijing or disregard for human life, it caused short-term damage to Thailand’s internal security. In August 2015, a bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine in Central Bangkok which killed 20 people and injuring more than 100. But Thailand botched the investigation, and in true fashion, attempted to place the blame on insurgents in its southern provinces. It even tried to blame groups linked to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. While two Uyghurs, Yusufu Meerailee and Adem Karadag, were accused by Thai authorities of smuggling Uyghurs seeking asylum, their trials are still ongoing, and they have described conditions in a Thai military prison as “deplorable.”
Like this or the current situation concerning another group of Uyghur asylum seekers, an equal case can be made for Thailand’s accommodation of Beijing. It is simply willing to tolerate illegitimate actions and internal threats to its own internal security in favor of policy decisions that accommodate China, which in turn gives Thailand more autocratic space. Other examples include the unexplained kidnapping and removal of a Hong Kong book publisher from the Southern city of Pattaya in 2015 or the deportation of activist Joshua Wong the following year.
Accommodation or bending to the interests of the Chinese government is not only a problem in Thailand. Uyghurs have found themselves deported from other countries in Southeast Asia as well – even from predominantly Muslim countries, who fear reprisals from Beijing if they do not comply. Indonesia recently deported an Uyghur terror suspect in September, as well as three other Uyghur men who were released from custody. Beijing even paid their court fees.
Malaysia, in the past, has refused to extradite Uyghur refugees despite calls from China to do so. It freed 11 Uyghurs from prison in 2019 and sent them to Turkey instead. And in a move to appease its own population, it announced a partnership with the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization to study China’s violation of human rights. But it’s not all good. It also refused in 2019 to sign a letter to the OHCHR condemning the Chinese mass detention of Uyghurs. Indonesia was no better. In early October, it was among members of the U.N. Human Rights Council to block discussion of the much-delayed OHCHR Report on human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
While the report has dispensed with the notion that China’s abuses of its Uyghur population are anything less than egregious violations of human rights, the long-term trend in Southeast Asia, emphasized by Thailand’s lengthy history of appeasement and disregard for Uyghur Muslims detained in its care, is negative. Thailand is too worried about the potential return of millions of Chinese tourists in the short term to be overly concerned with the present group of Muslim minorities. For now, like in the past, its policy of accommodation will likely continue.