The discovery of 220 'Uighurs' in Songkhla will test the country's moral courage - to resist Beijing and consider the people involved
Another big hot potato has landed in the lap of Thailand’s leaders and they are scratching their heads over what to do.
To press charges or not to press charges, that’s the question for the authorities over what to do with the 220 Turkic-speaking unidentified Muslims stranded in southern Thailand.
But while Thai police ponder the technicalities and legal due process, perhaps the one word that needs to seriously considered is the “humanitarian” factor in this refugee crisis.
Thai officials need to put legal moves and any thought of prosecution for illegal entry into the back of their minds for a time and think about the human facets of this issue.
The 220 unidentified Muslims call themselves “Turks” but had no documentation whatsoever when immigration authorities swooped on them at a rubber plantation in Songkhla province, where they were waiting, presumably, to go to Malaysia.
From there, it is believed that these so-called “Turks” would ask to be allowed to proceed to Turkey.
Turkish diplomats from Bangkok arrived at the immigration centre in Hat Yai on Friday with the daunting task of establishing the people’s identity and possible nationality.
While the refugees are sticking to their line that they are Turkish and want to relocate to Turkey, just about everything suggested that they are Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking group from China’s northwestern Xinjiang region.
And while Thai officials scratch their heads about what to do, the US State Department was quick to get off the starting block and urge that Bangkok provide full protection to the “victims”.
This was a sound diplomatic move considering the treatment of Uighur people by the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. Cambodia, Malaysia and Pakistan have in recent years deported Uighur asylum seekers back to China. And Thailand has a cordial relationship with China.
Rights groups and many others fear that Bangkok will give in to Beijing and deport the 220 – assuming that they are Uighurs from Xinjiang and that the Chinese wants them back. But the fate of the 220 Muslims, which includes 82 children, should not be a test for Thailand-China relations.
If Thailand sends these people back they could find itself with blood on its hands.
Report after report from other governments and international human rights organisations has noted that poor and repressive treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang is the root cause of the ongoing conflict that has spurred increasing communal violence.
Thailand is part of the UN Convention against Torture, which forbids the signatories from sending people to places where they could face such abuse.
Thai authorities “need to allow all members of this group access to a fair process to determine their claims based on their merits, not on Beijing’s demands”, according to Human Rights Watch’s Asia executive director Brad Adams.
The Uighur American Association, a Washington-based advocacy group, voiced concern over the group, which it described as Uighurs, and urged Thailand to cooperate with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
“This group of Uighurs should not be a test of Thailand’s relationship with China, but a test of Thailand’s ability to follow international refugee standards,” association president Alim Seytoff said.
Besides being a test case for international standards, perhaps the handling of the 220 refugees should be a test case for our moral courage.