BANGKOK -- Thailand is drawing harsh criticism from the U.S. government, human rights organizations and others for the arrest and repatriation of two Chinese activist refugees, seen as an attempt to curry favor with the regional heavyweight.
Dong Guangping and Jiang Yefei, two longtime dissidents from mainland China, have been arrested in Thailand and repatriated. Thai authorities are thought to have detained the two on Oct. 28, ostensibly over visa issues, before deporting them last Friday. Both men are recognized as refugees by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
While in China, Dong was active primarily in his home town of Zhengzhou, in the east-central province of Henan. He served three years in prison following a 2001 conviction for inciting subversion of state power. Dong was arrested once again in May 2014 after holding a memorial for Zhao Ziyang, the Communist Party's general secretary at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations whose sympathies with the student protesters knocked him from power. Dong was released this past February, and fled with his family to Thailand in September.
Jiang is best known for his cartoons satirizing Chinese state and Communist Party leadership. His recent strips, posted on Chinese-language sites accessible outside the mainland, include a work parodying President Xi Jinping's rhetoric of the "Chinese Dream."
U.S. officials are "deeply concerned," as the two men "could face harsh treatment, arbitrary detention and the lack of due process" in China, State Department spokesmen John Kirby said at Wednesday's daily press briefing. Kirby expressed "grave disappointment with this decision by Thai authorities," urging Bangkok to abide by its "international obligations and commitments as well as its long-standing practice of providing safe haven to vulnerable persons."
Human Rights Watch on Wednesday posted an open letter to Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha regarding the two refugees. China director Sophie Richardson condemned the junta's decision as a "clear case of refoulement that is prohibited under customary international law" and a "blatant violation of Thailand's obligations under article 3 of the Convention against Torture." That accord stipulates that a government account fully for the possibility that deportees will be tortured in their home countries when deciding whether to repatriate.
Richardson noted that the move also contradicts Prayut's proclamation at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 29 that "Thailand has always accorded priority to protecting and promoting human rights for all groups of people."
According to information gathered by the human rights group, the Thai junta was "explicitly informed on Nov. 10 that these two persons had been extended refugee status by the UNHCR and that a third country had decided to accept these two men and their families for urgent refugee resettlement." Richardson further blasted the move as a "deliberate, pre-mediated rights violation" that "highlights your government's total disregard for fundamental human rights."
"Both men are at significant risk of torture" in China, said Frances Eve, a Hong Kong-based researcher for the Network of Chinese Human Rights Defenders. "This is a worrying signal of the reach of Chinese police into Southeast Asian countries in pursuit of Chinese activists trying to flee persecution," she told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Eve cited as further evidence the recent seizure by police of Xing Qingxian and Tang Zhixun in Myanmar. The two had been assisting the son of disappeared lawyers Wang Yu and Bao Longjun in his flight from China. Their families have heard nothing from the authorities for over six weeks. "We are concerned that Jiang and Dong face the same treatment," Eve said.
The two activists' families have left Bangkok for Toronto, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday. Canada is thought to be the country offering to accept the refugees. The Thai junta has made no official comment on the repatriations. A source close to the police told The Nikkei that Jiang and Dong were removed from the country before dawn last Friday on a Chinese commercial airliner bound for the southern city of Guangzhou.
The case "has been handled wholly according to the law," Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a daily press conference Wednesday. Hong was responding to a reporter's question asking why Beijing demanded Bangkok repatriate two individuals officially registered as refugees. The Q&A transcript posted to the Chinese-language version of the ministry's website omitted the exchange.
The repatriations are the latest in a series of Thai human rights infringements. Bangkok has been known to round up politicians and others critical of military rule. The junta also came under fire in July, when it repatriated 109 members of the Uighur ethnic minority fleeing to Turkey. The largely Muslim group faces religious and cultural persecution in China's Xinjiang region and elsewhere.
The junta intimated following August's Bangkok bombings that the attacks could be connected to the Uighurs' forced repatriations. But the investigation was brought under wraps before any such connection could be demonstrated.
As the U.S. and others continue to call for a swift return to civilian rule in Thailand, the military government is edging away from Western powers and toward neighboring China. Beijing has offered Bangkok the chance for cooperative infrastructure development. The Thai navy also looked at one point ready to purchase three Chinese submarines.
Jiang and Dong's deportation comes ahead of Thailand's first aerial military exercises with China. Negotiations on cooperative railroad development are also entering a critical stage, leading some to suspect that the action could be intended to curry favor with Beijing.
The junta "is likely using its relationship with China to keep the U.S., European nations and others out of Thailand's domestic affairs," said Yuji Mizukami, a lecturer at Thailand's Chiang Mai University.
Nikkei deputy editor Kenji Kawase in Bangkok contributed to this story.