Tag Archives: Uighur

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

In China’s hinterlands, a new life for Myanmar’s Rohingya

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

President of Myanmar Thein Sein. Photo: Wikemedia Commons

On February 12, 2015 Myanmar President Thein Sein, prompted by protests led by Buddhist monks in Yangon, reversed a decision made ten days earlier to give voting rights to the country’s Rohingya population. The reversal, while surprising to some, was only the latest in a series of events to befall the Muslim minority who call western Myanmar’s Rakhine state home.

The Rohingya of Myanmar (also known as Burma) have lost more than voting rights in the past. Regarded as one of the world’s most oppressed peoples, the Rohingya are a distinct ethnic group that speak a dialect of Bengali and are thought to be descended from Arab and Persian traders.

Persecuted at Home

Under the military junta that ruled Myanmar for most of the latter half of the 20th century and the current, nominally civilian government, Myanmar’s Rohingya have suffered chronic poverty, food insecurity, harassment and forced labor, among other human rights abuses. Following Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya were denied citizenship and are still referred to as ‘aliens’ and ‘foreigners’ by government officials. They are neither allowed to travel outside their hometown nor marry without official approval.

Poor relations between the Muslim Rohingya and their neighbors have only made things worse. Tensions between Rakhine state’s Muslim population and the majority Rakhine ethnicity, who are Buddhist, boiled over in 2012, leading to anti-Muslim riots that spread throughout the country. In Rakhine state alone, over 200 people were killed and whole villages were burned to the ground. Conditions have not improved for Myanmar’s Rohingya population since then. The current boat crisis of thousands of Bengali and Rohingya refugees stranded off the coasts of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia is a consequence of awful conditions at home.

The Rohingya, however are certainly not the only group struggling in Myanmar. Despite what appears to be a nascent democracy, a civil war between the government and an array of armed ethnic groups along the country’s periphery has flickered continuously since the 1950s. The reasons for the conflicts are many, though issues of ethnic autonomy and control of precious resources like jade and timber loom large.

The conflict’s latest iteration began in February 2015 and is still ongoing. A flare up of tensions between the Myanmar Army and Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) in Kokang, Shan State, has killed hundreds and forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee across the border into China.

Many Rohingya have also left Burma in the past decades. Tens of thousands of them reside in ill-equipped refugee camps on the Myanmar-Bangladesh border, though others have escaped to new lives abroad. Their final destinations vary, but the majority resides in Saudi Arabia, Malaysia, Thailand and Pakistan. Of these Rohingya living overseas, who may number over one million, most work low-wage jobs in the construction and service industries. There are some, however, that have chosen a different path in a land closer to home.

Abdullah's storefront in Jinghong

Abdullah’s storefront in Jinghong

Eight hundred kilometers east of Rakhine state in Jinghong, China, Abedullah owns a small jewelry shop. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon he hasn’t sold a thing.

Abedullah, like almost one million of his compatriots in Rakhine state, is a Rohingya, but he has not lived there in thirteen years. Instead, he’s settled in Jinghong, the capital of Yunnan Province’s Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, along with almost 600 other Rohingya. All of them sell jade.

According to Abedullah, who only agreed to give his first name, Rohingya merchants first came to Jinghong almost forty years ago. Following the end of the bloody Bangladesh Independence War in 1973, hundreds of thousands of refugees fled into neighboring Burma. Marginalized by the Burmese and eventually disavowed by the Bangladeshi government, tens of thousands of Rohingya fled overseas. A handful made it to southwest China’s Yunnan province.

Stories of Jinghong’s first Rohingya are hard to find and by all accounts, the number of émigrés remained small until the 1990s. It was then that the Chinese economy began to truly open up to the international market. As trade increased and more Chinese became wealthy, the country’s jewelry consumption level grew as well, skyrocketing over 4000% in a decade.

While all gemstones have grown in popularity in recent decades, none hold the place in Chinese culture that jade does. Regarded as a stone of mystical qualities since antiquity, jade is the king of gemstones in China and it is in Myanmar that the world’s highest quality jade is found.

As a result, jade shops are ubiquitous in dozens of towns along the China-Myanmar border. Jinghong is one of the largest. Straddling the Mekong River, this once sleepy town has grown into a city of six hundred-thousand and now hosts millions of tourists each year. Many of these tourists come looking to buy Burmese jade. As travelers have flocked to Jinghong in greater numbers in recent years, Rohingya merchants with connections to the Burmese jade trade have followed to keep up with demand.

A New Life

One of the recent arrivals is Xiao Fei, a 21 year-old who prefers his new Chinese nickname to his given name. Xiao Fei, like many other Rohingya in Jinghong, came at the behest of his family; his grandfather first arrived in the city almost thirty years ago. After saving enough money for a passport, Xiao Fei was able to leave his home in Yangon and help his grandfather set up the family’s second shop.

Xiao Fei had to save up for his passport because getting such a document is often impossible for many Rohingya in Myanmar. Since they are officially considered to be foreigners by the Burmese government, Rohingya can only obtain passports after paying expensive bribes to the right people. That is why, as Xiao Fei explains, “Only rich Rohingya can make it to China.”

Once in Jinghong, new arrivals find an environment altogether strange and inviting. The forest of newly-built apartment complexes and hotels certainly dwarfs anything found in Rakhine state, however the hundreds of established Rohingya businessmen form a tight community that provides everything from religious services to a lunchtime delivery service of halal Burmese cuisine.

It is the mosque that is the heart of the community, says Waynai, a trader living in Jinghong for six years. The Jinghong Mosque, located not far from the banks of the Mekong was first established decades ago by the city’s existing community of Hui, a distinct ethnic group of more than ten million people that practice Islam and speak Mandarin Chinese.

When the Rohingya began to move to Jinghong in greater numbers in the late 1990s, they became a part of the congregation, eventually joined by a small population of Uighurs from China’s northwest. Together, these three groups of Muslims manage the congregation. Despite disparate geographic and cultural backgrounds, the mosque is thriving with a healthy number of members, daily prayers held in Arabic and discussion groups where participants speak in Standard Mandarin.

The Jinghong Mosque

The Jinghong Mosque

However both Waynai and Abedullah agree more with the mosque’s Uighur members on theological questions. When asked whether or not he had any non-Rohingya friends from the congregation, Abedullah answers, “Yes, but not the Hui. They’re fake … they don’t have Allah in their hearts.” Instead, it is the Uighur community that he feels closer too. “[The Rohingya] are similar to the Uighurs because neither of us are free … we both have to struggle to survive.”

This struggle is why Ba Hlaing, a 31 year-old jade dealer, came to Jinghong eight years ago. At the time, his family lived comfortably in a suburb of Yangon but as he came of age, conditions for young Rohingya grew more difficult. “I would’ve liked to stay with my family, but there wasn’t anything to do, no money to make.”

“It’s because of [the government] that we’re so backwards now,” he says in a whirlwind of English, Mandarin and Jinghong dialect, slapping the table after each word.

Just then a Han Chinese couple enters Ba Hlaing’s shop. He greets them using his best Mandarin, standing, “Welcome to Ba Hlaing’s Jewelry! We have the finest jade from Myanmar! Would you like to look at a bracelet?”

After five minutes of browsing, the wife still has not decided on a piece and the husband, fidgeting, suggests heading back to their hotel. The couple leaves and Ba Hlaing sits down to light a cigarette. “That’s how it goes,” he sighs. Just like Abedullah, business is slow for Ba Hlaing, even during tourism’s high season.

Ba Hlaing believes the drop in jade sales is a consequence of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s much-publicized crackdown on corruption. Once-popular ostentatious displays of wealth, like jade pieces worth tens of thousands of dollars are now frowned upon and officials that might frequent jade shops like Ba Hlaing’s are staying away.

Burmese jadeite

Burmese jadeite. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The jade, however, keeps flowing from Myanmar. Most of it is mined in a strip of remote jungle in Kachin State, in the country’s northeast.  Conditions in Myanmar’s jade mines are notoriously dangerous and the towns that spring up around them are known as much for their drugs and guns as they are for their jade. However bad mining conditions are though, the money can be worth it for those who can make it. Official figures from Myanmar’s government put jade exports at $1.4 billion between 2011 and 2014. Analysts from Harvard University’s Ash Center disagree, estimating jade sales – both official and off the books – at $8 billion for 2011 alone.

Once the raw jade has been extracted, it is sent to processing centers. The majority are located within Myanmar, in urban centers like Mandalay and Yangon, where the jade is polished and crafted into a final product. The next step is to get it into China, where the market is.

Most traders interviewed for this article admitted that the majority of the jade they sold was actually smuggled into Yunnan. A few well-placed bribes on both sides of the border can get shipments of jade, transported in trucks, into China reliably. Once the jade is in Yunnan, it usually makes its way to Ruili, a major border crossing between China and Myanmar.

According to Ba Hlaing, many Rohingya traders in Jinghong have a contact in Ruili, usually family, that buys the jade. Others, however, are directly connected to processing centers, most often in Yangon. For more valuable pieces, with sale prices upwards of $50,000, many traders will use air transport to ensure their safe arrival. While import taxes must be paid in these cases, the extra cost is often worth the peace of mind.

 A Tough Decision

Peace of mind, however, is getting harder to come by. With a slowdown in business and mounting issues back in Myanmar, many members of Jinghong’s Rohingya community are facing a tough decision whether or not to return home.

Ba Hlaing, for one, is planning on going back to Myanmar. Sales have decreased for the past two years and he fears that a protracted crackdown on corruption in China will keep jade sales low and prevent his shop in Jinghong from making a profit.

Despite the dire situation for the Rohingya in Myanmar, Ba Hlaing is choosing to remain positive. “I think things will get better for us,” he says guardedly. “We have [this year’s parliamentary] election and the world paying attention to us so democracy is a good thing.”

Abedullah, on the other hand, does not share Ba Hlaing’s optimism. He does not want to return to Myanmar and sees little hope for democracy delivering the Rohingya from oppression.

“Things are a mess in Myanmar right now, everything is a mess,” he says. “The economy is bad and the government and [the armed ethnic groups] are still fighting.”

When asked his thoughts on the country’s armed conflicts, Abedullah pauses before exhaling heavily. “You know, we want to go to war too. At least [the armed ethnic groups] have guns. We don’t have anything,” he laments. “The government even took the knives from our houses … But then they still call us terrorists.”

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Myanmar/Burma, SLIDER, Trade, Yunnan Province

Three executed for Kunming railway station attack

courthouse

Three men from Xinjiang, all of them convicted of helping to carry out the brutal 2014 Kunming train station attack, were put to death earlier this week. A brief notice posted on a micro-blog managed by the Kunming Intermediate People’s Court announced the executions on Tuesday

Iskandar Ehet, Hasayn Muhammad and Turgun Tohtunyaz were convicted of premeditated murder and leading a terrorist group in September 2014. Their guilty verdicts and sentences were recently upheld by China’s highest judiciary, the Supreme People’s Court, clearing the way for the executions.

The three men did not physically participate in the shocking March 1, 2014 attack in Yunnan’s provincial capital. Instead, according to the now-accepted narrative, they were apprehended for illegally trying to cross the border out of China two days before the train station rampage. In a statement made shortly after the attack, then Yunnan Party Secretary, Qin Guangrong,characterized the captured men as Muslim terrorists, adding one had confessed to his crimes and admitted the group wanted “to join jihad”.

Parts of this narrative directly contradict previous press accounts claiming the suspects were captured following a 36-hour manhunt in Kunming undertaken by authorities after the train station bloodshed. It remains unclear when or where the men were actually caught, as no details of their arrests have ever been made public.

Alternately dubbed the ‘3.01 Event’ and ‘China’s 9/11’, the March 2014 attack left 31 people dead and 141 injured. Four of the assailants were shot and killed at the scene — in some accounts by a single police sniper in under 15 seconds. The lone female attacker, Patigul Tohti, was apprehended alive at the train station and later sentenced to life in prison at the same trial where Ehet, Muhammad and Tohtunyaz were condemned to die.

Making an already painful and opaque situation even more confusing, investigators who claimed the case was closed in mid-2014, announced last month that four new suspects had been arrested in Indonesia. Another five people thought to have helped orchestrate the Kunming plot reportedly escaped a police dragnet by Indonesian police.

Uncertainty of details aside, this week’s handling of the executions was far more subdued than the last time Kunming authorities dealt with a high-profile death sentence. The simple announcement was made on a micro-blogging service and did not mention the means of death or where the executions were carried out.

In stark contrast, Kunming judicial officials made waves both inside and outside China in 2013 for their handling of the execution of Burmese drug kingpin and convicted murderer Naw Kham. Authorities televised his final hours, producing an ill-conceived reality television show — complete with running commentary — that aired nationally. It ran for nearly two hours, ending with a live interview with Naw seconds before he was taken away and killed.

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Filed under Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Kunming railway station attackers charged in mass stabbings

Image: CCTV

A SWAT team patrols the Kunming train station. Image: CCTV

In March of this year, a group of men and women armed with knives descended on the crowded Kunming Railway Station. Their ensuing rampage left 29 civilians dead and 143 injured in what is one of the most violent coordinated attacks to occur in China in recent memory. Four people accused of perpetrating the violence have been formally charged and will soon stand trial, Xinhuais reporting.

Official accounts of the attack state that six men and two women participated in the train station assault. Of those, four were shot and killed at the scene by police. One woman was subdued and arrested at the station, while three other suspects remained at large for 36 hours before being captured. No details of the manhunt or exactly how, where and when the fugitives were caught have ever been made public.

The four defendants stand accused of multiple crimes and will presumably face the death penalty if convicted. They have each been charged by the Kunming People’s Procuratorate, the city’s highest court, with participating in a terrorist organization, carrying out violent terrorist activities and premeditated homicide. No date has been publicly announced for a trial.

The outcome of the case is likely a foregone conclusion. Defendants tried by the government, especially in high-profile proceedings such as this, are generally found guilty following extremely short, closed-door judicial proceedings. A short, terse statement by prosecutors trying the four defendants appears to confirm this. It read, “The facts are clear and the evidence is ample. The four [suspects] should be investigated for criminal responsibility according to law and then prosecuted according to law.”

The defendants are all ethnic Uighurs from China’s Xinjiang Autonomous Region and prosecutors maintain the March 1 attack was religiously and politically motivated. In a statement made shortly after the suspects were apprehended, Yunnan Party Secretary, Qin Guangrong,characterized the captured men and woman as Muslim terrorists, adding one had confessed to the crime and admitted the group wanted “to join jihad”.

China has significantly ramped up law enforcement and ‘anti-terror’ efforts following the bloodshed in Kunming. In many cities around the country, police officers are now permitted to carry sidearms for the first time in decades. Trials involving suspected militants have also increased, and 113 people were recently jailed for terrorism-related crimes by Xinjiang courts.

Click here to link to this article written by Patrick Scally, first published on July, 1 on the GoKunming website.

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Filed under China, Current Events, ethnic policy, Governance, Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

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

The Economics of the Kunming Massacre

In the wake of the Kunming massacre, the mood in Beijing is more choleric than somber. President Xi Jinping immediately announced a nationwide crackdown on terrorism and military troops were rapidly posted at train and bus stations throughout the country. Armored vehicles now patrol Kunming, Xinjiang natives have been told to register themselves at local police stations in Qinghai province and in Guangxi province authorities have asked citizens to report if they see anyone from Xinjiang — anyone at all.

President Xi also issued a gag order on local reporting, with coverage in Kunming Daily and Yunnan Daily provided by Xinhua reporters in Beijing. Meanwhile China Daily featured a front page photograph of President Xi shaking hands with an ethnic Uighur member of the PCC (China’s Senate). But strengthening national unity goes beyond public cries for concord and front page handshakes. It also involves eliminating the perceived cause of the conflict, and the national narrative is that this cause has more to do with nomadism or Islamist ideology than the fact that employment opportunities for Uighur people, even in their homeland province, are dismally inadequate. In 2009 Ilham Tohti, economics professor at Beijing’s Central Nationalities University and an ethnic Uighur, spoke with Radio Free Asia and suggested jobs might be the key to settling unrest.

But rather than address economic pressures, the government continues to focus on Islam as the catalyst. In 2013 police in Xinjiang began harassing women in head scarves and men with beards. Radio Free Asia reported how one man, with no prior record of violence, stabbed a police officer when he was forced to shave. Ehmetjan Niyaz, an intelligence agent with the local security bureau, commented that they had been advised to investigate men with beards. In Xinjiang, that essentially means all Uighur men.

In other words, the more Beijing singles out Muslims as a means of burking separatism, the more separatist Xinjiang Muslims become. Gardner Bovingdon, Professor of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and author of The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land, writes “the closure of mosques, supervision and dismissal of clerics, and the prevention of religious practice by the young — has made Islam in Xinjiang more rather than less political”.

Another government strategy has been to manipulate the demographics of the region. Of the 60% of Xinjiang’s population that is not Uighur, Kazakhs constitute 7% with Hui being another 4.5%. The remaining dozen or so minority groups collectively make up 8.5% while the final 40% is entirely ethnic Han. According to Dr Stanley Toops of Miami University, from 1953 to 1964 the presence of ethnic Han rose from 7% to 33%. Since the 1970s, this number has remained stable at around 40%, making it one of the fastest demographic shifts in Chinese history.

In 2007 Gaël Raballand and Agnès Andrésy published an article entitled “Why Should Trade between Central Asia and China Continue to Expand?” In it, the authors describe how the Xinjiang Construction and Production Corps, also known as the bingtuan, was created in 1954 to encourage the movement of Han Chinese into the region by creating infrastructure there. In addition to creating an ethnic Han workforce to outnumber local Uighurs, the bingtuan also helps ensure locals remain calm with a security force of more than 120,000 heavily-armed troops. As The Economist points out, propaganda is par for the course:

“A museum in Shihezi, a city in northern Xinjiang controlled by the corps, displays a photograph of members of the bingtuan militia armed with rifles, crouching behind a wall during a 1990 uprising by Uighurs near the city of Kashgar. The militia, says the caption, played an important role in crushing the unrest. Amnesty International, a human-rights group, says 50 Uighurs were killed in the incident, including some who were shot while running away.”

Morris Rossabi, who teaches History at Columbia University, points to the Tang Dynasty as the origin of the bingtuan. Famously cosmopolitan, the Tang Dynasty celebrated the Turkic culture of present-day Xinjiang, staffing its frontier armies with Turkic soldiers and even allowing some, like the great Ashina Se’er, to rise to the rank of Tang general. This helped frontier lands become self-reliant and even afforded some measure of political autonomy. The bingtuan follows this tradition by providing Xinjiang the means for economic self-reliance, yet deviates sharply by staffing its workforce with ethnic Han rather than local Uighurs.

With Xinjiang currently contributing roughly 4% of the nation’s GDP (primarily through oil reserves) as well as Beijing’s Western Development policy, which hopes to see China’s western provinces contribute greatly to the nation’s economy, Uighurs will remain a minority in Xinjiang for the foreseeable future. Dr Ilham Tohti has stated he is not opposed to state-orchestrated migration policies, but that these policies need to be carefully reviewed, pointing that if there are enough jobs to warrant the migration of millions of ethnic Han into the region, then why aren’t there enough jobs for the people already living there?

In 2006 Dr Tohti launched a website promoting understanding between ethnic Han and Uighurs, but in 2009 it was shut down and Dr Tohti was arrested. He was released shortly before President Obama’s visit to Beijing but in January 2014 the BBC reported he had again disappeared, that his family had no knowledge of his whereabouts and that the government was charging him with separatism — a crime punishable by death.

For now, events like the Kunming massacre serve to further Beijing’s program of economic development in Xinjiang by providing carte blanche to those who view ethnic identity as a major roadblock to China’s economic future and by giving Xinjiang politicians an easy scapegoat when they fail to provide economic paths of opportunity.

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‘Uighur’ Refugees Arrested in Thailand, Malaysia: Part of a Larger Trend?

Detained Uighurs in Thailand. Photo: Reuters

Detained Uighurs in Thailand. Photo: Reuters

Last week, East by Southeast, in a piece hypothesizing the motives of the Kunming train station attackers, made the connection between Uighur asylum seekers, Yunnan and Southeast Asia. In the analysis, ExSE posited that Thailand was a likely destination for Uighur refugees as they made their way from Xinjiang, through Yunnan and into Myanmar or Laos. This past week, two separate incidents in near the border of Thailand and Malaysia occurred that appear to confirm this hypothesis.

News was released on Thursday that Thai authorities had rescued 200 people from a human smuggling camp in the south of Thailand. During a raid on Wednesday, police discovered 200 people imprisoned in a camp suspected to be used for human trafficking.

The group, which includes 78 men, 60 women and 82 children, at first claimed to be Turkish, despite having no documents to confirm that. However, they have now been identified as ethnic Uighurs from China by a US-based organization.

With their identities confirmed, Thailand has faced calls to not to deport the refugees, with the US State Department also weighing in.

“We are concerned about Uighurs generally (and) welcome reports that these Uighurs were rescued,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters Friday. “We’re encouraging Thailand to make sure their humanitarian needs are met.”

US-based Human Rights watch also urged the Thai government not to deport the refugees. “Thai authorities should realize that Uighurs forced back to China disappear into a black hole,” Brad Adams, the organization’s Asia director said in a statement.  “They need to allow all members of this group access to a fair process to determine their claims based on their merits, not on Beijing’s demands.”

Refugees on the way to a Thai detention center

Refugees on the way to a Thai detention center

Despite these calls, dozens of the refugees were sentenced for illegal entry by a Thai court on Saturday, with each person assessed a fine of 4,000 baht ($124). For now, the men will be taken to an immigration detention center and the women and children will be taken to a shelter, according to Police Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot.

In a possibly related story, 62 people were arrested just across the border in Malaysia last week. Like the group caught in Thailand, the Malaysian also claimed to be Turkish refugees. The group of alleged Turks were found near the border fence during routine patrols early Thursday morning Deputy Superintendent Sivam of Malaysia’s General Operations Force said in a statement.

Despite their claims of Turkish nationality, those arrested were not carrying valid travel documents or identification papers and historically, there has been a small, if nonexistent presence of illegal Turkish immigrants in the region. In light of this and the arrests in Thailand, some in the media believe that the alleged Turks might in fact be Uighurs from China. If so, this would mark the largest number found in Southeast Asia to date.

If both groups arrested are indeed Uighur refugees, their escape to Southeast Asia wouldn’t be without precedent. Since Cambodia deported 20 Uighurs back to China in 2009, there have been a string of similar deportations in the region. In 2010, Lao PDR deported a group of seven Uighur refugees back to their native Xinjiang in northwest China and in 2011 and 2012, Malaysia deported separate groups of refugees to China. Each deportation case has been heavily criticized by rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Human rights groups fear that once repatriated, Uighurs face a grim future of long prison sentences and possible torture. Refugees deported back to China from places like Pakistan and Cambodia have all faced life prison terms upon their return.

The threat of prison is likely a reason why those arrested in Thailand and Malaysia have claimed to be Turks when discovered. Instead of admitting to Chinese nationality and facing the possibility of deportation back to China and likely prison time, the refugees opted for claiming another nationality. Seeing that the Uighur population is nearly all Muslim and speaks a Turkic language, claiming Turkish citizenship was a natural choice.

However, as is the case with both groups of refugees, these people’s true identities have yet to be discovered. If they aren’t Turks, are they really Uighurs? If they are Uighurs, how did they get to the Thai-Malaysian border and why did they come this far? Was Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country with labor shortages, the final destination? If both groups are indeed Uighur, this would mark a new level of southward migration for Uighur refugees. Might this also tie them to Kunming train station attackers, as East by Southeast hypothesized? For now, these are only questions, but ExSE will be searching for answers.

 

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The Kunming Train Station Attack: A Hypothesis

In answering the question “Why was Kunming chosen as the site of last Saturday’s attack?”consider the following:

In response to a police crackdown in Hotan, Xinjiang beginning in the summer of 2013, a large group of Uighurs attempted to make their way to Laos through Yunnan. Instead of escaping to Southeast Asia as refugees as planned, thirty were arrested at the border along with dozens of others throughout the province. Warrants were issued for those who were not immediately caught, and a detailed most wanted list was made public. At least eight remained at large and as time passed, hope for the release of their compatriots or relatives and their own escape to a foreign refuge grew smaller. With warrants out for their arrest and a heavy police presence in Xinjiang, returning home was impossible. Without local ID cards, settling down in Yunnan would prove just as difficult. Out of viable options, the group of eight decided to make a brutal last stand, taking out vengeance on the province where their plans failed. Gathering what little resources they could find in Kunming, the group planned to strike where they would be able to cause the most damage. And so on March 1, 2014, five people walked into the Kunming Train Station with knives and terror ensued. Continue reading

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Kunming Train Station Attacks: The Media’s Response

 

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It’s Monday night, local time, and more than a day has passed since Kunmingers and the rest of the world awoke to news of Saturday night’s terrorist attack at the Kunming Railway Station. In that time, local residents, concerned citizens, the media and the world at large have begun the process of digesting what happened and what it all means. In this short time, reports have gone from panicked messages on mobile chat apps to full articles in the international press and an ongoing discussion on Twitter and Weibo. A few narratives have emerged, each with their distinct angle on the attack and some focused solely on the reaction to them.

Many of the first stories that were published were strict accounts what happened, such as this report from the BBC. The BBC story is representative in describing only the scene at the train station and eyewitness accounts of the attack. Similar stories were found on the websites of most news outlets.

The Chinese press, like the international press, only reported accounts of the scene at first, but stressed the official response, with most articles carrying quotes from President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Today, much of the coverage focused around security measures,  the efforts of medical teams in Kunming, and Chinese citizens’ response to the attacks.

Another narrative in the Chinese press was one of anger towards the foreign media for their treatment of the incident. One hotly discussed essay was this one from Xinhua News. Both the US Embassy and CNN drew Xinhua’s ire for downplaying the importance of the attacks. CNN put quotation marks around the word ‘terrorists’ in its first article on the incident while the US Embassy’s official statement failed to identify the attackers as terrorist. Xinhua was not the only one angry with the US Embassy, with thousands of Chinese criticizing the US online as well. In addition, this graphic from the People’s Daily online edition made for an intense discussion on both Twitter and Weibo.

A third strain of coverage of the incident centered around the bigger picture for China’s minority populations going forward. This article from Reuters looks at the possibility for increased tension between Uighurs and the majority Han population. A 2013 ChinaFile article by James Palmer, republished yesterday by Foreign Policy, was another article looking at ethnic tensions in Xinjiang that made the rounds on Twitter over the past 36 hours. The discussion around both articles has focused on whether or not the Kunming attacks are a harbinger for a new wave of crackdowns in Xinjiang and it’s a conversation that is sure to develop over the next days and weeks.

One line of discourse that has been missing from coverage is that of local Kunmingers. As often happens with events like these, the details and reactions of those most affected are discarded for larger implications and trends. Whether it be another short-lived skirmish over media bias towards China or the continuation of a long discussion on ethnic tensions in China, what locals think might be lost in the shuffle. Some interesting storylines that should be followed are: how Kunming as a city heals from the attacks; the language locals use to talk about the attack and what we can learn from that; how Kunming’s Uighur and Hui Muslim populations have been affected by the attacks; and how these attacks fit in the larger picture of ethnic relations in Yunnan. These are all critical questions and East by Southeast will do its best to find answers to them in the coming days. At the same time, we encourage our readers to reach out and tell us how they have been affected by the attacks what they see as important in the aftermath of such an event.

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