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.