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Why Beijing isn’t using the Erawan Shrine bombing to its advantage

A statue of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with people of Chinese descent, including Thais.

An image of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with Chinese tourists, who were among the victims of the attack.

A connection between Uyghur militants from China’s northwest and the August 17th bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been confirmed. Thailand’s police chief made the link explicit during a news conference Tuesday. While the geopolitical consequences of the connection remain to be seen, Beijing could still stand to benefit from the Erawan bombing. However, fears over domestic implications may keep China from using the attack to their advantage.

Two men who have been taken into custody in connection with the case are Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag. Mieraili was arrested in late August with a Chinese passport that listed his birthplace as Xinjiang province – the homeland for the oppressed Muslim-Turkic Uyghur minority. The second suspect was found in an apartment outside Bangkok along with bomb-making materials and dozens of fake Turkish passports.

Thai police issued an arrest warrant for another suspect from Xinjiang, Abudusataer Abudureheman, on Saturday. The 27 year-old Chinese national goes by the name ‘Ishan’ and is the suspected mastermind of the operation. The wanted poster for Ishan first reported that he was of Uyghur ethnicity, though a second version removed the reference and Thai authorities subsequently asked media to “drop the word”.

Observers, both international and Thai made early connections  between the Erawan bombing and the forced repatriation of 109 Chinese Uyghur refugees in July, though it is only now that Thai authorities have acknowledged the Uyghur links to the case. On Tuesday, Thai’s chief of police, Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung blamed the attack on human traffickers who aided Uyghurs refugees, angry that their network had been disrupted by Thai authorities. “Put simply, we destroyed their business.”

Combating domestic terrorism

While the connection between the controversial deportation and the bombing is seemingly bad news for China, there are a number of ways in which the PRC could benefit from this situation. First, the bombing legitimizes China’s domestic anti-terrorism efforts.

The Uyghur struggle for autonomy and Beijing’s efforts to contain it has been anything but peaceful. Systematic state-sponsored economic and physical violence in Xinjiang has been met with repeated attacks on police stations, government buildings, markets and train stations, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Beijing has long claimed that many of the terror attacks were coordinated by the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a shadowy separatist organization allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. The very existence of ETIM, let alone its potency, has long been debated among experts and China has struggled to receive widespread recognition for its fight against domestic terrorism. This is largely due to doubts over ETIM and opposition to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.

The Erawan attack could change this. Now Beijing can point to the Erawan bombing as credible evidence that Uyghur terrorism is a threat that deserves attention outside of China. By internationalizing the issue, the Chinese government can rationalize its repeated crackdowns on Uyghurs to an international community which has been critical of its past policies. Now, Uyghur terrorism is an international issue that affects everyone – Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2014, after all.

Cross-border cooperation

Additionally, with an internationalization of Uyghur terrorism comes more opportunities for cross-border cooperation. Sino-Thai relations, already made closer by new trans-boundary infrastructure projects, will undoubtedly be strengthened by the Erawan attack. In February 2015, a counter-terrorism cooperation pact was signed between Indonesia and China following the repatriation of four Uyghurs accused of planning the Kunming train station attack. A similar agreement is a likely consequence of the Erawan attack.

International cooperation in combating (and sometimes creating) terror networks has been a lowest-common denominator of sorts for inter-state relations in the 21st century and China should take advantage of this. In the past, China has used links between Uyghur militants and terror cells in northwest Pakistan to strengthen relations with the South Asian state. In light of the Erawan blast, Beijing could coordinate its counter-terrorism efforts with Washington. Sino-US relations have noticeably worsened in recent years, and counter-terrorism, aside from global warming, may be the safest area for increased cooperation between the two regional rivals.

Coordination of border control efforts in Southeast Asia, particularly along China’s southern boundary is another area of possible cooperation. Uyghur migration through southwest China into Southeast Asia is a relatively new trend, and the number of migrants has swelled in recent years. Refugees have been known to use existing smuggling routes out of China and through Southeast Asia, exploiting porous borders and corrupt guards on the way. With the specter of international terrorism looming, China and its southern neighbors could increase cooperation along the margins. This would particularly benefit China’s ties with Myanmar and Vietnam, two countries with strained relations to Beijing.

Historically, Southeast Asian governments have acquiesced to China’s demands for detained Uyghur refugees to be repatriated and many observers presumed that the trend would continue along with China’s rise in regional influence. However, there is wide speculation that the attack at the Erawan Shrine, a site popular with ethnic Chinese, both Thai and tourist alike, was executed in retaliation for Thailand’s deportation of Uyghur refugees. The repatriation of 109 Uyghurs from Thailand in July led to condemnation from human rights groups and protests at China’s consulate in Istanbul, where nationalist Turks see Uyghurs as their pan-Turkic brethren. After Erawan and Turkey’s summer protests, Southeast Asian governments will likely reconsider any future deportations for fear of similar retribution.

Internal Worries

Internal worries over the consequences and implications of the Erawan blast may explain Beijing’s continued silence over the incident. While news of the attack did feature prominently in Chinese media in the days following the blast, there has been scarce coverage of the subsequent investigation, let alone the identity of the alleged attackers. Moreover, Beijing has actively denied Uyghur links to the Erawan attack, calling such speculation “hugely irresponsible” in the days following the explosion. Following the Tuesday statement from Gen. Somyot, there has been no mention of the Uyghur link to Erawan in the Chinese press.

China’s fears are not without merit. First, that the attackers hail from Xinjiang could be a point of embarrassment for the Chinese government. The crisis in northwest China has grown worse by the year – 2014 saw the expansion of Uyghur violence out of Xinjiang to the rest of China – and 2015 has now brought an international attack linked to the Uyghur separatist movement.

In the past, Beijing has refrained from mentioning the ethnicity of suspects in domestic attacks for fear of stoking ethnic tensions. Similar concerns are likely influencing China’s actions post-Erawan. Implicit in China focusing at all on the attack’s connection to Xinjiang is an acknowledgement of failure in solving the country’s ethnic problems and an admission of partial culpability. The government is already having enough trouble convincing its citizenry that it is capable of guiding the country through an economic slowdown – adding more doubts over ethnic and security issues is the last thing Beijing wants.

A Coordinated Response?

The lack of coverage of the investigation in China has been mirrored by Thai authorities’ previous reluctance to link the explosion to Uyghur separatism, and its continued avoidance labeling the attack as terrorism. This, like China’s strategy, is likely targeted at the Chinese public. The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has exploded in recent years and the money they bring has been a welcome addition to the country’s economy as other sectors have faltered since a military junta took power in 2014. News of a bomb in downtown Bangkok was always going to affect tourism numbers, but connections to Uyghur terrorism will undoubtedly cause many prospective Chinese visitors to think twice before booking flights to the kingdom.

What’s more, Thailand’s handling of the case has raised questions of Chinese involvement in the case. The delayed official announcement of the Uyghur and the offiical waffling over the ethnicity of the suspects signaled to some that China had an affect on the investigation. Further, Thai officials asked media to avoid analysis that might affect “international relationships,” interpreted by many to mean China. A coordinated response by Bangkok and Beijing would make sense. In addition to being the source of millions of tourists each year,  China is Thailand’s largest trade partner and the closest ally of its military government.

Now that Bangkok has shown its hand, Beijing’s response will be critical to watch. Political savvy on the part of China’s foreign ministry could turn an international tragedy into an opportunity for more positive ties with Southeast Asia. However, the domestic implications of publicizing the link between Xinjiang and Erawan shrine will likely keep Beijing silent for now.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Human trafficking, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Thailand deports Uyghur refugees to China, despite protests

Refugees on the way to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

Refugees being transported to a Thai detention center, March 18, 2014. Image used courtesy of VOA News.

After more than a year of waiting, almost 300 ethnic Uyghurs are leaving Thailand. On July 1, a group of 173 Uyghur refugees, mostly women and children, left Thailand for Turkey. A week later, another 109 Uyghurs were deported back to their home country of China. The decision on the fate of these refugees, who have remained in Thai custody since their arrests in March 2014, has sparked criticism from human rights groups and protests from the Turkish public.

These 282 Uyghurs are part of a group of almost 300 people taken into custody by Thai authorities in March 2014. Many were found in a human trafficking camp in Songkhla province. Since then, they have waited in detention centers in Songkhla, Trat and Rayong while an intense diplomatic battle over their fates raged between the governments of China, Turkey and Thailand.

The Uyghurs are a Turkic-speaking, predominantly Muslim people from Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China’s northwest. In the last decade, they have left China in increasingly larger numbers, escaping religious persecution and political and economic repression.

On July 1, Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), confirmed through Radio Free Asia‘s Uyghur language service that the first group of 173 Uyghurs were able to “enter into Turkey safely” after arriving in Istanbul.

“They are mostly women and kids—around 120 kids and about 50 women. Hopefully, the men [still in detention] will be granted this kind of chance in the near future.”

Initial reports of bloodshed

The Uyghur men, however were not given such a chance. On July 8, 109 refugees were forcibly deported to China from Thailand. The group was made up of mostly men, however some women and children were also repatriated.

The World Uyghur Congress first reported that 25 men had been shot dead after resisting their deportation in Bangkok. Thai authorities, however, denied the story.

Thai government deputy spokesman Weerachon Sukhontapatipak told Radio Free Asia in an interview that “there was no such thing as claimed by WUC.” Another, anonymous source in the Thai government confirmed Weerachon’s statement, saying, “It is not true. There was no killing as claimed by the WUC.” He added that video evidence confirming the refugees’ safety could be provided.

In the initial report published on their website, the WUC reported that a first plane of mostly women and children departed without incident. “The second plane, however, was intended to transport around 65 men, but authorities faced some resistance from the men in doing so.”

In the process of subduing the resisters, 25 men were shot and killed, the WUC originally reported. Hours after its publication, however, the paragraph concerning the killings was removed from the report.

Protests and condemnation

The move by Thailand to repatriate the refugees drew intense criticism from Uyghur organizations and human rights groups. The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said it was “shocked” by Thailand’s decision and considered the deportation “a flagrant violation of international law.”

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of Thailand’s military government, seemed unconcerned with issues of international law, claiming that the matter did not concern Thailand.

“I’m asking if we don’t do it this way, then how would we do it?” he said. “Or do you want us to keep them for ages until they have children for three generations?”

Rights groups worry that the deported Uyghurs will face harsh penalties once on Chinese soil. Uyghurs that have been repatriated from Southeast Asian countries in the past have received long jail sentences and even capital punishment for illegally leaving China.

In Beijing, Hua Chunying, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed that the Chinese government would pursue legal action against the repatriated Uyghurs.

“China’s relevant departments will bring those who are suspected of committing serious crimes to justice according to law,” she told reporters. “As for those who are not suspected of committing crimes or who commit lesser offences, we will find proper ways to deal with them.”

The episode has also led to protests in Turkey, where many see Uyghurs as their Turkic-speaking “cousins”. On Thursday, both the Thai consulate in Istanbul and the Thai embassy in Ankara were attacked during pro-Uyghur demonstrations. Police in Ankara used tear gas there to disperse protesters.

Earlier in the week, the Chinese consulate was attacked along with  Chinese restaurants in Istanbul. Protesters were angry after reports emerged that local governments in Xinjiang region were prohibiting Uyghur schoolchildren and civil servants from fasting for Ramadan. Similar Ramadan crackdowns have been reported annually for over a decade In response to the protests, the Chinese government issued a travel warning to Turkey for Chinese tourists on  July 8.

A split decision

Despite closer ties between Turkey and China in recent years, the issues surrounding the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghur refugees have prevented the Sino-Turkish relations from moving forward. This week’s protests certainly marks a low point in the relationship and it will be interesting to see how things develop after this latest deportation episode. It is unlikely that China’s crackdowns nor Turkey’s acceptance of Uyghurs will end anytime soon.

Despite Thai Prime Minister Prayuth’s claims that Thailand was simply a third party actor, its role in the refugees’ deportation to Turkey and repatriation to China was key. How it navigated this tricky diplomatic issue says much about Thailand’s relations with China. Ties between the Southeast Asian state and China have improved in recent years and increased Chinese investment in Thailand’s infrastructure will only make the two countries closer. Therefore, it was never in doubt that Thailand would acquiesce to the PRC’s request to have the Uyghur migrants returned.

However, Thailand, with a proud history of resisting foreign pressures, still wishes to remain independent in the face of a rising China. Its decision to send 173 women and children, likely low-priority targets for China’s internal security forces, to Turkey instead of China is significant. It could be interpreted as a symbol that while China’s clout in the region is growing, it is not yet large enough to wholly influence diplomatic decisions.  Future cases of deportation involving Uyghurs in Southeast Asia will act as a barometer of China’s influence on the foreign affairs ministries in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and other regional capitals. This episode may have reached its conclusion, but it is unlikely to be the last as long as Uyghurs continue to look for a better life outside China’s borders.

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Human trafficking, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Terrorists or Refugees?: Case of ‘Uighur’ Migrants Unsolved in Thailand

Detained Uighurs in Thailand. Photo: Reuters

Detained Uighurs in Thailand. Photo: Reuters

In the past two weeks, close to 300 suspected Uighur migrants were discovered in the jungles of southern Thailand. Since their discovery and apprehension by Thai authorities, accusations of terrorism and rebuttals to these claims have flown.

Quoting an unnamed source attached with Thai police, the Bangkok Post published an article claiming that the migrants were indeed Uighurs. They intended to use Thailand as a transit point to go to Turkey, where they would be trained in terror tactics that could be used in their native China and elsewhere.

Recently, two groups of migrants have been found in the south of Thailand. The first, discovered March 12 at a rubber plantation near Songkhla, was a group of 219 people, containing dozens of women and children. Another group of 77 were arrested near a school in Sadao district on the 20th of March.

The same source alleged that the migrants were identified as Chinese Uighurs and not Turks, as they have claimed, by bus tickets and items that had Chinese writing on them. “Immigration police are not stupid,” the police source added.

Turkey has sent diplomats to southern Thailand to verify the migrants’ claims of Turkish nationality. The migrants were able to speak with diplomats when interviewed, however when met by an interpreter from the Thai Immigration Bureau they could not communicate well. “The interpreter believed they could not speak Turkish,” the source said.

A named source, Thai Immigration Bureau chief Lt. General Panu Kerdlarppol, refused to give any specific details regarding the migrants’ nationality or ethnicity. However, historically and geographically, it would make more sense that they were Uighur. Thai authorities have been aware of a Uighur migrant presence in the country since last year.

In December 2013, 112 refugees were arrested in the country’s south and are now being held at a detention center. Thirty of the migrants have so far been positively identified as Uighurs. Following the arrests, Lt. General Panu met with Chinese authorities in Kunming about the issue.

There are some, however, that dispute claims of the migrants’ nefarious motives. Speaking through the Phuket Wan Tourism News, the New York-based Human Rights Watch dismissed the accusations.

‘The groups in question are composed of significant numbers of small children, and more than a few pregnant women,” Phil Robertson, Deputy Director, Asia Division, Human Rights Watch, said today, ”so one wonders how unnamed police sources have suddenly somehow jumped to a conclusion that these people are ‘terrorists.”

Mr. Robertson links these claims of terrorism to Thailand’s treatment of asylum seekers in the past. Starting in 2009, hundreds of Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar began regularly washing ashore on Thailand’s western coast. These refugees, fleeing ethnic violence in their home, were also labelled as terrorists. Oftentimes, they were pushed back out to sea by units of the Thai navy.

”It seems pretty clear that Thai officials have some ulterior motives in trying to tar this entire group with the ‘terrorist’ label,” Mr Robertson said.

He believes the end game is to deport the migrants to China, ”I suspect that such ‘terrorist’ accusations are a prelude to some Thai government officials trying to force these groups back to China in what would be a clear violation of international law,” Mr Robertson surmised.

Migrants claiming Turkish nationality were also arrested in Malaysia this month, though no further word on their situation has been released.

 

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Filed under China, Current Events, ethnic policy, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand