March 25, 2023

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What is the status of Thailand’s forgotten Uyghurs? Bangkok’s “Dilemma”

They are 52 to 59 ethnic Uighurs who have been forgotten in detention centers in Thailand. On their flight from China, where they were persecuted, they were stuck in cells, some for almost a decade, with “nobody looking after them”.

“It’s an embarrassment to the authorities” in Bangkok, which is caught in a pinch between China and the United States and their allies who disagree with the file, underscores Thai senator Jackie Pitakumpol. He urges the international community to “act immediately. »

Because, according to the senator, who was arrested in Thailand in 2013 and 2014, 52 Uyghurs have been living for years as illegal immigrants awaiting deportation.

They are part of the Muslim Uyghur minority, a “genocide” target in China according to the US – and Beijing disputes that at least a million people are suspected of staying in “camps”.

In Thailand, it is not clear how many or where they are being held, as the Thai Immigration Service did not respond to AFP’s requests.

“They are considered a threat to the country’s security. No one has an answer as to how long they will be there,” said Salida Tjaronchuk, president of the Human Rights Defense Association (PEF).

– “They have nothing” –

The last official communication from the Thai government dates back to July 2015, when the Thai government confirmed the return to China of “hundreds” of Uighur refugees arrested a year earlier.

A month after a bomb exploded in central Bangkok, killing 20 people, in retaliation for an attack by a pro-Uighur group – the trial of the two main suspects is set to resume in Bangkok on Tuesday.

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About 170 Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking people, were also deported at the same time to Turkey, one of their main protectorates against Beijing.

But others stayed.

In July, three of them escaped from a detention center in Prasup Giri Khan (South) province. According to Ms. Tajoaroensuk, two were found.

“What’s life like in a prison cell like this for almost ten years?” asks Senator Jackie Pitakumbol, one of the leaders of the Central Islamic Council, which represents Thailand’s 7 to 8 million Muslims.

“There are patients, the elderly and the very young. They get beaten up by the police or other inmates because no one pays attention to them,” assures Abdullah Sami, who was in touch with them till recent months.

The 35-year-old Uyghur, who left China in 2013, lived in Thailand for two and a half years before seeking refuge in Austria, where he now works in a restaurant.

“They are waiting for good news from the United Nations, Turkey or other big countries. I am sad to say that they have none,” he explains.

Thailand, which is not a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention, continues to stand out for its policy of almost formal repatriation of refugees or asylum seekers.

“Thailand’s inhumanity (…) is absolutely shocking. If there is a hell on earth, Thailand has created it for these Uyghur prisoners,” responded Bill Robertson, deputy director for Asia at the NGO Human Rights Watch.

– Bangkok Inflexible –

And then where to return them?

Bangkok, which hosts the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November, said Mr. According to Pidakumpol, it faces a “predicament”.

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China is asking for the return of its nationals. But responding positively to him would alienate America.

Thailand is used to sailing against currents, assures Thitinan Pongsuthirak, a professor of political science at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok.

“Recently, Bangkok has realigned relations between Washington and Beijing by getting closer to the US. There is less pressure than before to send them back to China,” he analysed.

The kingdom has joined the new Asia-Pacific Partnership (IPEF) launched by US President Joe Biden to counterbalance China, which has “lost ground because of its zero Covid policy”, he notes.

This summer, eight Thai human rights organizations called on Bangkok not to send these refugees back to China.

Contacted by AFP, a foreign ministry spokesman indicated that the kingdom’s position “remains the same”, without elaborating.