Asean must stand up to China over Uighurs

opinion March 18, 2014 00:00

By The Nation

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Our region has a duty to protect the rights of migrants who face persecution by authorities back home

This is not the first such group to have arrived in this region in recent years. But our neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have always dealt with these migrants harshly, deporting them to face prosecution in China. Beijing is no doubt pleased by this policy, but it damages Asean’s reputation.
Some 220 Uighurs were found hiding on a rubber plantation in Songkhla province last Thursday. The speculation is that they come from western China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where an ethno-religious conflict is raging.
They appeared in Thailand only a couple of weeks after a brutal attack in China’s southwestern city of Kunming, which Beijing blamed on ethnic Uighur terrorists. Whether it was Uighurs who carried out the mass stabbing, which killed 29 people and injured 130 others, remains unclear. What is certain is that the Muslim ethnic Uighurs are being stereotyped by Beijing as separatist terrorists. Longstanding tension between the Uighurs and Chinese authorities is worsening, exacerbated by Beijing’s policy of encouraging mass immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang.
Why the 220 Uighurs would come to Songkhla remains unclear. There are many women and children among them. As such, they may have lacked a clear idea about Xinjiang’s autonomy or could be involved in anti-government activities or conflicts with Chinese Han at home. Perhaps they are just ordinary people seeking economic opportunities and better lives. They could also be victims of human trafficking.
Whatever their background, they likely face harsh punishment if they are forced to return to China. At the very least they will be punished for leaving the country without permission.
Of course, from Thailand’s point of view, they entered the Kingdom without permission and thus, like many others, can be sentenced, fined and deported in accordance with our immigration laws.
However, the law should always have a human face. The government and law-enforcement officials have leeway to judge the issue according to humanitarian criteria. International norms and good practice suggest we should not to send back anyone to face persecution for political crimes they have not committed.     
Recent years have seen other Asean members – Cambodia in 2009 and Malaysia in 2012 – forcibly return Uighurs to China. Cambodia and Malaysia might have been motivated by a wish to maintain good relations with Beijing and keep its economic assistance coming in.
Thailand might be under the same pressure, but the desire to maintain good foreign relations should not override the need to protect basic human rights. 
The Yingluck administration also wants Chinese backing for its domestic battle with anti-government protesters. But the caretaker government should remember that the international community – in particular the United Nations, whose secretary general Ban Ki-moon has been invited to mediate in Thailand’s political crisis – places a high value on human rights.
A good initial solution to Thailand’s Uighur dilemma would be to allow the UN High Commission for Refugees to intervene and grant the group protection, removing them from detention at Thai Immigration. All Asean members should then seek a permanent solution to the regional issue of Uighur immigrants.