BANGKOK/ANKARA -- Facing a barrage of criticism at home and abroad after it forcibly sent 109 ethnic Uighur refugees back to China on July 9, the Thai government is in damage-control mode.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on July 13 that he is sending a delegation to China from July 15 to 17 to follow up on how the 109 deportees are being treated. Seeking to appease the critics, he has emphasized that "China said it will provide safety to [the deported Uighurs]." Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs also released a statement on July 10 saying, "[The] Chinese government has provided assurance that they will be given fair treatment and safety."
Nevertheless, the move by the junta has drawn widespread criticism.
After word of deportation spread on July 9, more than 100 people stormed Thailand's honorary consulate in Istanbul. "We deplore this act of the government of Thailand," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a July 9 statement, describing it as a violation of international humanitarian law.
Uighurs are Turkic language-speaking Muslims. Defenders of the deportees say they fled their home in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in western China to escape government persecution. Many in Turkey feel religious and cultural affinities with the Uighurs, and their treatment in China is becoming an increasingly sensitive issue. Recent reports that fasting during the holy month of Ramadan has been banned in Xinjiang have fueled further resentment in Turkey.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the attack on the consulate, as well as assaults on tourists of Chinese appearance. Speaking at a dinner with ambassadors in Ankara on July 9, he also voiced support for the Uighurs, saying, "We stand by our Uighur kinsmen, as with our other kinsmen and brothers," and adding that he will discuss the issue during his visit to China at the end of the month.
Bangkok's action triggered criticism from the international community. "We are shocked by this deportation of some 100 people and consider it a flagrant violation of international law," said Volker Turk, assistant high commissioner for protection at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. John Kirby, U.S. State Department spokesman, condemned the move and expressed "grave disappointment" with Thailand. The EU urged Bangkok to abide by its international obligations, such as the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Human rights organizations were also quick to condemn the Thai government. "Deporting these people is a despicable act, and illegal under international law," said Nicholas Bequelin, regional director for East Asia at Amnesty International. "This is akin to sentencing them to the worst punishment imaginable. Time and time again we have seen Uighurs returned to China disappearing into a black hole, with some detained, tortured and in some cases, sentenced to death and executed."
Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, tore into the kingdom's move, saying, "Thailand has cravenly caved to pressure from Beijing and robbed these people of their only protections." She added, 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 claim is a Uighur against forced expulsion or return."
The World Uyghur Congress, an international umbrella body of exiled Uighur groups, said in a statement July 9 that the transfer of 173 ethnic Uighurs to Turkey the previous week prompted China to renew its pressure on the Thai government. Bangkok's deportation is "an indication of the power that the Chinese government holds in relation to its neighboring states," the group said.
Skepticism at home
Editorials in Thailand's two major English-language newspapers echoed these views. Bangkok Post on July 11 wrote, "Thailand once again has bent to the threats of China." The Nation, the next day, lashed out at the decision, saying, "In its desire to please China, the military government has brought the country international condemnation and risked the lives of those returned."
The Chinese government, for its part, is unmoved by the condemnation. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said July 11 that U.S. criticism was "filled with political prejudice," and expressed "intense dissatisfaction and resolute opposition" to Washington's position on the deportations.
However, the images showing deported Uighurs being bundled out of an aircraft with black hoods over their heads aired on Chinese state television on July 11 was a reminder for many of how they may be treated in China.
There were 52 Uighur refugees still in Thailand as of July 14. The international community will be watching closely to see how it deals with them.