BANGKOK – Thailand deported more than 100 ethnic Uighurs back to China on Thursday, ignoring calls from the international community to protect the group and ensure they were not forced back to face possible persecution by the Chinese government.
Deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Verachon Sukhonthapatipak said that Thailand had assurances from Chinese authorities that "their safety is guaranteed." He said the group of 109 Uighurs had been in Thailand for over a year, along with others who had arrived in waves claiming to be Turkish. Thai authorities sought to verify all of their nationalities before relocating them, he said.
"We found that about 170 of them were Turkish, so they were recently sent to Turkey," he said. "And about 100 were Chinese, so they were sent to China as of this morning, under the agreement that their safety is guaranteed according to humanitarian principles."
The Uighurs are a Turkik-speaking Muslim minority in China's far west Xinjiang region. The group has complained of cultural and religious suppression as well as economic marginalization under Chinese rule.
China has accused Uighur separatists of terrorism in Xinjiang, where ethnic violence has left hundreds of people dead over the past two years. Last year, Chinese authorities blamed a group of eight Uighurs for a knife attack that killed 31 people at a train station in the southwestern city of Kunming, after the suspects failed to flee the country. Three men caught before the attack were sentenced to death.
New York-based Human Rights Watch called Thailand's repatriation of Uighurs an "outrageous rights abuse" and criticized the Thai government for "forcing (the Uighurs) back to China against their will."
"For reasons of realpolitik, Bangkok callously treated these Uighurs as expendable pawns to be sacrificed to big brother China in clear violation of international rights standards," said Phil Robertson, the group's Asia Division deputy director.
He said the Thai government "broke numerous promises made over the past year to visiting senior officials from the UNHCR and other governments that the Uighurs would not be sent back into harm's way."
The World Uyghur Congress, a German-based advocacy group, said that those repatriated could face criminal charges and harsh punishment, possibly execution, under China's opaque legal system — the reasons they fled China in the first place.
In Istanbul, the Thai Consulate General was closed on Thursday after a group of men broke into and vandalized the office. The Thai Embassy issued a statement urging its nationals in Turkey to be on alert for "an expression of dissatisfaction over Thailand's handling of the Uighurs who entered the country illegally."
It also advised tour guides against using the Thai flag while traveling in Turkey and urged the Thais to avoid any protest areas.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.