Since March 13, Thailand has detained two groups of 218 and 78 Muslim refugees, many of whom claimed to be "Turkish" although they are thought to be ethnic Uighurs from China (Uighurs are a Turkic people). The refugees were hiding in different locations in Sadao District, Songkhla province, in the deep south bordering Malaysia. Thai authorities have linked these groups with 112 Muslim refugees discovered last year, and a group of 15 discovered earlier this week, in the southeast province of Sa Kaeo, bordering Cambodia. Thai media and Chinese diplomats in Thailand claim these are also ethnic Uighurs from Xinjiang, the Uighur homeland in northwest China.
Many details remain unclear about these detainees, though Thai authorities say that they were not linked to terrorism and that they had enough money to pay $19,000 each for their illegal passage. Thai, Chinese and Turkish authorities are cooperating to locate and arrest the human trafficking network that transported the families to Thailand, according to the Bangkok Post.
More such discoveries are likely forthcoming. Thai authorities claim that Uighurs are using several routes from China through Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia to get to southern Thailand and then Malaysia. The routes run over land or over the Andaman Sea or the Gulf of Thailand and take approximately two weeks to a month. The Thais claim that the refugees can supposedly get passports in Malaysia that will allow them to fly to Turkey or other havens such as Australia.
Thai authorities claim the Uighur refugees have no terrorist links, but Beijing has expressed concern and will seek to have them extradited to China. Though Chinese security forces were apparently unprepared for the Kunming attacks, they had become more attentive in recent years toward Uighurs traveling southwestern routes to trade and seek contacts with international associates. Kunming is the chief hub for China's contact with Southeast Asia, and the number of Uighurs there has increased since the 2009 Urumqi riots in Xinjiang that prompted the government to try to encourage more Uighur integration with the rest of China. Immediately after 2009, China sought to tighten its southeastern border to stop the flow of Uighurs from Kunming, Shenzhen and Guangzhou to Vietnam and Cambodia.
The Uighur presence had also increased along black market trade routes such as the road from Dehong, Yunnan province, to Myanmar, where China had sought to free up border trade controls to boost local economies (a move that has been reversed). The recent statements by Thai police imply that they had already begun to round up Uighurs prior to the Kunming attacks — indeed, Chinese police in Kunming even hosted a meeting last year with Thai police to discuss the Uighur issue, according to the director of Thailand's Immigration Bureau. Apparently China's authorities were aware of new security threats related to the growing Uighur presence in Yunnan province.
Now, in the aftermath of the attacks, China is encouraging its neighbors to locate, detain and extradite Uighur refugees more actively. Thailand has some reason to cooperate. Though it is highly unlikely that Uighur refugee families would contribute to Thailand's ethnic Malay Muslim insurgency in the deep southern provinces, Thai security forces will not look kindly on a new wave of foreign Muslim refugees. Police are constantly struggling to manage the country's extensive problems with refugees and human trafficking, including the inflow of Muslim Cham from Cambodia and Vietnam and Muslim Rohingya from neighboring Myanmar, many of whom have also congregated in Songkhla. The commander of the Thai police force's Immigration Division 6 has supposedly led the charge in exposing Uighur hiding places in the jungles along the southern border and in showing that Rohingya are not the only immigrants, according to Thai media.
This time, however, Thai authorities suggest they may not deport the refugees back to China. In recent years, Beijing has succeeded in getting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam and Cambodia to extradite Uighurs back to China, according to Radio Free Asia. Bangkok does not have poor relations with Beijing, but it must give more consideration than Phnom Penh to other interests — domestic human rights groups, the United Nations and broader international community and its chief ally, the United States. Hence it would be more convenient for Thailand to deport the Uighurs to a party other than China. Yet Thai capitulation cannot be ruled out. Not only has Thailand deported Uighurs to China before, but Malaysia extradited a small group of Uighurs to China in 2012 despite its relative foreign policy independence and need to maintain its standing as a devoutly Muslim nation for both domestic and international audiences. China is a regional influence difficult to ignore.
If Thailand chooses not to extradite the refugees to China this time, then it will have to find a country willing to take the refugees that is also politically acceptable. Sending them to Turkey is the most logical choice — it is their intended destination, Turkish officials say it is possible and the United Nations might be able to arrange it. However, it would aggravate China. Turkey has a large Uighur diaspora, and the issue has caused tensions between Turkey and China before. The Turkish Embassy in Bangkok has offered to pay fines for the refugees, and Thai media quoted Chinese police sources saying these Uighurs wanted to pursue "militant training" in Turkey.
Malaysia may not want to accept the dilemma that comes with the refugees; it already faces Chinese pressure to round up refugees on its side (not to mention frictions over Malaysia's handling of the missing Flight 370 with mostly Chinese passengers and, before that, recent signs of rising maritime distrust between the two). Australia is a possibility, but it already has many immigrants, and the Tony Abbott administration is raising the bar to entrance. Nevertheless, a third party can be found eventually, unless Thailand chooses to extradite the refugees to China despite international criticism.
China's Regional Security Cooperation Challenges
The deeper question is whether China will adopt a harder line to pressure its neighbors to detain and extradite Uighur refugees more consistently going forward. Tensions with Uighurs inside China, including the ongoing Hanification of Xinjiang, strict regulations on Uighur religious and social practices and a fear of Uighur militancy, will likely continue driving more Uighurs into exile even as the government attempts to improve the Xinjiang economy. But greater Chinese pressure on its neighbors to round up higher numbers of exiles would mark a significant shift in the regional countertrafficking dynamic.
Beijing faces a similar problem in its regional intelligence and counterterrorism efforts. It remains unclear how it will gain better compliance from neighbors not only in Southeast Asia but also in South and Central Asia, especially at a time when the United States is withdrawing from the region and leaving greater security burdens in its wake. Abdullah Mansour, the supposed leader of the Turkestan Islamic Party (allegedly connected with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), applauded the Kunming attacks in a statement issued from his hiding place on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Pakistanis are sensitive to the needs of the Chinese and act both independently and in league with the Chinese against Uighur jihadists, but Beijing has still blamed its ally Pakistan for harboring Uighur militants in the past. Better security cooperation and coordination with the Central Asian states will prove even more difficult.
Taken as a whole, Beijing faces a foreign policy challenge that goes well beyond its desire to regain control over a few small groups of Uighur refugees in Southeast Asia. It will need to ask for more help with information sharing, law enforcement and the delicate issue of deportation from most of its neighbors, and it will need to weigh options for discouraging or punishing uncooperative states.