Forgotten Uyghurs locked up in Thailand face 'hell on earth'

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Almost a decade after fleeing China, more than 50 Uyghurs are languishing in Thai detention facilities, living in constant fear of being sent back.

China has been accused of grave human rights abuses in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs dating back to at least the 1990s, with the United States branding Beijing’s treatment of the mostly Muslim minority a “genocide”.

A damning UN report released in August detailed violations including torture and forced labour and “large-scale” arbitrary detention in what Beijing calls vocational training centres.

Many Uyghurs have fled China over the years, with some travelling through Myanmar to Thailand, but dozens have ended up stuck in detention there — the apparent victims of what observers say is the kingdom’s desire to avoid angering either Beijing or Washington.

The group of Uyghurs, arrested in 2013 and 2014, are currently being held in immigration centres around Thailand while authorities ponder their fate.

Neither their precise location nor their exact number is clear — a group of Thai rights organisations says there are 52, but a senator working on the case says 59.

Immigration authorities have not responded to AFP requests for information.

Abdullah Sami, a 35-year-old Uyghur from Xinjiang who fled China through Thailand and now lives in Austria, has been in contact with some of the detainees.

“The situation is terrible,” he told AFP.

“They live with the fear that if they are ever sent back to China, they would suffer persecution there.”

It is not an idle fear — in 2015 the Thai government forcibly deported 109 Uyghurs to China, in defiance of US pleas to protect them.

That move drew stern condemnation from Washington and the UN, which said it was a violation of international law.

It also sparked violent protests in Turkey — where nationalist hardliners see Uyghurs as part of a global Turkic-speaking family — forcing the temporary closure of Thailand’s embassy and consulate.

A month later, a bomb attack at a Bangkok shrine killed 20 people, most of them ethnic Chinese tourists. The trial of two Chinese Uyghur men accused of the attack resumes next week after long delays.

– ‘Security risk’ –

Around the same time, in mid-2015, Thailand sent a further 170 Uyghur women and children to Turkey.

But some Uyghurs remained, and in July three men made headlines in Thai media after they escaped from a southern immigration centre, with one believed to still be at large.

But details about those still in detention remain murky, with no concrete information available on who they are.

“It is clear that the Uyghurs are considered a special security issue,” said Chalida Tajaroensuk, head of human rights association People’s Empowerment Foundation, which has led recent calls to free the detainees.

The group are believed to have been shuffled from immigration centre to immigration centre for the past eight years.

“Nobody has an answer on how long they will stay there,” Chalida said.

– Diplomatic balance –

“What’s a life, in this kind of prison cell for almost 10 years?” asked Thai senator Zakee Phithakkumpol, one of the leaders of the Islamic Central Council, which represents the kingdom’s eight million Muslims.

Support for the detainees has stepped up in recent months, with eight Thai human rights organisations urging authorities in July not to send them to China.

The renewed attention comes as Thailand prepares to host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit next month, with China and the United States both increasingly vying for influence in Southeast Asia.

Thailand’s junta cosied up to Beijing after seizing power in 2014, but in recent years it has sought to tread a path between China and the United States, the kingdom’s oldest ally.

“Lately, Bangkok has been rebalancing its relations between Washington and Beijing, rather moving closer to the United States,” political professor Thitinan Pongsudhirak at Chulalongkorn University told AFP.

The massive diplomatic and security fallout from the 2015 deportation may also contribute to the government’s hesitancy, but it is keeping mum about its next moves.

Contacted by AFP, a ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson said the position of the kingdom “remained the same”, without giving further details.

Sami, who was in communication with a number of the men held, says their fears will not have changed.

Every time they spoke, he said, “I tell them with sorrow that there is no news, there is nothing about them.”

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director at Human Rights Watch, said the Uyghurs’ treatment was “absolutely shocking” and Thailand should release them immediately.

“Thai Immigration is acting like it will hold these men indefinitely, for the rest of their lives if need be, to avoid offending China,” Robertson told AFP.

“If there is a hell on earth, Thailand has created it for these Uyghur detainees.”

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