- by Siegfried O. Wolf

There was much media attention on Thailand’s latest deportation of more than 100 Uighurs back to China, which was officially confirmed on 9th July 2015.

The asylum seekers, who entered the South East Asian country illegally, were subsequently detained by the Thai immigration authorities, and held in custody for over a year. In order to find a solution, the Royal Thai government finally decided to hand them over to China ‘under the agreement that their safety is guaranteed according to humanitarian principles’. Nevertheless, Bangkok had to face immense criticism by the international community, especially through human rights organisations and the United Nations. UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection, Volker Türk, proclaimed that he considered the deportation of the Uighurs as ‘a flagrant violation of international law’. Additionally, in several countries like Turkey and Germany, huge protests broke out not only to express solidarity with the Uighurs but also to formulate grievances about the way the deportation was carried out. 

The Uighurs are a distinct and mostly Sunni Muslim ethnic community located in China’s Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and are one of the country’s 55 recognised ethnic minorities. However, the Uighurs are feeling suppressed by the Chinese central government and regard Beijing as a ‘colonising power’ attempting to undermine their cultural identity, political rights, religion and to exploit (‘their’) region’s rich natural resources. This is gaining significance since the Uighurs identify themselves as original inhabitants of Xinjiang, which they describe as ‘East Turkistan’. As such, many of the Eastern-Turkic speaking Uighurs (who feel closer to Central Asian states) favour separation from China, or at least greater autonomy. It is not surprising that this evokes a sharp reaction from Chinese security circles that want to have Xingiang under their tight control, for economic as well as geostrategic reasons. Furthermore, as it constitutes one sixth of the People’s Republic territory, Xingiang is perceived as an integral part of the modern Chinese nation state. Subsequently, the Chinese government struck down separatist intentions in the respective province several times. This led to an increasing militancy among extremist elements within the Uighur community, which was in turn further radicalised.

The situation is getting even more complex due to the fact that the Uighur separatism is not only an ethnic-nationalist movement, but one with a religious dimension, too. The Muslims in Xingiang feel oppressed by the central and regional authorities - dominated by the Han Chinese majority - when it comes to practising their Muslim culture, traditions, and religion. This widespread sentiment of oppression has laid the grounds for Islamists capitalising the course for ‘East Turkmenistan’ in their global ‘Jihad’. Having observed an increased intermingling of international Jihadist networks with Uighur militants aiming at achieving the separation of Xingiang from China, Beijing subsequently enforced even harsher regulations, raised its budget for internal security dedicated to Xingiang, and intensified activities to fight terrorism, separatism, and religious extremism. As a result, tensions between the Uighurs and Han Chinese increased dramatically and clashes leading to violent riots broke out between the groups in July 2009, resulting in around 200 casualties, with hundreds injured, and much damage to buildings and infrastructure in Urumqi, the capital of XUAR. Following the 2009 episode, another wave of violence came in 2012. Having experienced a deadly vicious cycle of rioting, unrest and retribution, many of the Uighurs fled from China and migrated (legally or illegally) to other countries.

Undoubtedly, the forced ‘returnees’ have to face severe consequences in China. However, it is significant to point out here that the ‘Uighur Conundrum’ is not only a matter of illegal migration, international law or a secret deal between Thailand with Beijing to appease the Chinese. Although these points might have some kind of substance, they are only reflecting a part of the whole picture. It is argued here that political decision makers within the region and beyond have to consider the Uighur problem in the context of the rising Global Jihad and Islamic fundamentalism. It is of utmost importance to investigate how far the refugees (or illegal migrants) are involved in Jihadist networks or serving as potential recruits for terrorist organisations before repatriating them to China, or to send them to third countries like Turkey. Of course, it will be difficult to differentiate between ‘would-be Jihadists’ and ‘would-be refugees’. There might be actors preferring to blur the line between both the groups for political reasons. However, the crucial point is that the global Jihadist movement has increasingly been hijacking the case of the Uighurs, which is not doing the latter any favours.

This means that one must shed light on South Asia’s experiences with Uighur militancy, which helps to understand the security dimension of the whole issue. In the Afghan-Pak region, China’s Uighurs have proven to be not only an unusual source of friction in bilateral China-Pakistan and Afghanistan-Pakistan relations, but also an added problem to regional instability. Furthermore, the Uighur issues also cast shadows on Pakistan-Turkey relations, adding on to the simmering tensions between Turkey and China.  

In this context, one must state that Pakistani governments have adopted, in the past a tolerant attitude toward the Uighur presence in its country, and remained, for a long time, ‘relatively silent’ to their separatist militant cause in China. However, this policy changed in the late 1990s in order to address Beijing’s increasingly uncomfortable concerns about the fact that Pakistan, especially its tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, was developing into a hideout for Uighur extremists. 

According to China’s Global Times, the Uighurs militants intended to use fake Turkish passports to enter South Asia and to join the international Jihad network. There, the Uighurs received ideological indoctrination, military training in weapons and explosives. Many of the Uighur fighters are organised in an umbrella group, called East Turkestan Islamic Movement or ETIM. The ETIM was listed as one of the ‘more extreme separatist groups’, and as a terrorist organisation by the US in 2002. The UN al-Qaeda/Taliban Sanctions Committee listed the ETIM for its association with al-Qaeda. At that time, there was much hope in Washington and New York of a closer U.S.-Chinese cooperation on anti-terrorism in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. However, ETIM fighters fought alongside al-Qaida and Taliban forces in Afghanistan during the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom and offered support fighting against NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission. Furthermore, Uighurs gained combat experience in Chechnya and were involved in terrorist activities in Kyrgyzstan, for example, by plotting the attack on US embassy in 2002. Reportedly, ETIM has not only links with al-Qaeda (which also provided funds and training) but also sends fighters for the Islamic State in Syria.

Nevertheless, in spite of Uighurs serving al-Qaeda, Taliban and Islamic State in anti-US, anti-NATO activities, the main focus of ETIM is still to plan and carry out attacks in and outside China, especially against Chinese people and projects in the Afghan-Pak region. It is important to note that al-Qaeda joined the Islamic state, who declared Jihad against China, by condemning Beijing for its handling of its Uighur Muslim population. Both organisations consider the fight against the Chinese as their ‘Islamic responsibility’ describing them as ‘enemy of all Muslims’. This classic Sunni-Jihadist propaganda on the persecution of Muslims was adopted in the Uighurs’ rhetoric. This is evident in videos and other material, in which Uighurs call for global Jihad and uprisings in China.

To this date, any assessment of ETIM regarding size, scope, and capacity is difficult. Additionally, the strength of ETIM and other militant Uighur groups operating outside China, like the Turkestan Islamic Party, is unclear. A Reuters report from 2014 placed the figures at around 400 in Pakistan and 250 in Afghanistan, and Global Times talks about 300 Chinese nationals (meaning Uighurs) fighting for Islamic State. These numbers are not verified and consequently, questions appear not only surrounding how large the Uighurs terrorist network is but also how dangerous it really can be. 

However, even if the number of Uighur militants seems to be relatively marginal and they keep a low profile in Pakistan, they constitute a concrete, serious threat. The lack of members and material resources can be easily compensated by logistic, financial and personal support from Jihadist networks, or the Uighurs can get integrated in existing Jihadist structure and actions, especially since the Islamic State is increasing its activities in the Afghan-Pak region. With the Uighur issue, it seems that IS found a common ground to work with al-Qaeda and Taliban, a cooperation that had seemed rather difficult before. In this context, the recent ‘official’ confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death and subsequent, potential fissures in the Taliban movement could convince some sections of the hardliners – unhappy with the recent ‘moderate developments’ under the new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor - to join IS. 

Thus, the Uighurs’ cause is getting exploited by the global Jihadism in two directions; directly, because the Uighurs are getting indoctrinated and manipulated by the Jihadists to serve as fighters, and indirectly, because the persecution of Uighurs as part of the whole (Sunni) Muslim community is getting utilised as part of an ideological platform to bring different, competing Jihadist groups in South and Central Asia together. In this context, the planned China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), most likely the greatest infrastructure project in the entire region, could be a preferred target. This would have tremendous negative impacts on Pakistan’s economy and disturb the relations between Islamabad and Beijing. Furthermore, Uighurs will continue their attacks on foreign (especially Chinese) development projects in Afghanistan creating further suspicions in Kabul about cross-border terrorism.

Bearing all this in mind and to sum up, the criticism of the deportation of the Uighur from Thailand to China has certainly many valid points from a human rights and international law perspectives. However, the current scenario must be put into macro perspective to see the larger picture for several reasons.

Above all, it shows the ambiguity and selective views of the US administration and other international actors, like certain human rights organizations, regarding the treatment of Uighurs by international partners. Several countries are continually handing over Uighurs to China, despite the fact that it is known that they have to face torture, even capital punishment. However, political reasons (especially maintaining/building alliances in the ‘global war against terror’) have silenced the international (Western) critic regarding the respective countries on how they handled the Uighur issue. 

However, when it comes to the current Thailand case, it seems that some of the determinants for decision-making has changed. China is clearly not joining any US led effort to fight against Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism and prefers its own defined path. In contrast, it sees Washington’s engagement in South Asia and South East Asia as a threat to its own security and economic interests. Therefore, there is a danger that the increasing US-China rivalry in the extended region (especially Strait of Hormuz, Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, Strait of Malacca, and Southern China Sea) may hamper a comprehensive, satisfactory solution for the Uighurs refugees. 

This is playing into the hands of the Jihadists who can further exploit the Uighurs’ vision for an improvement of their social, cultural, and economic-political conditions in their homeland. This is unfortunate, since the strategic and ideological patterns of the international Jihadists organisations are not aiming at the establishment of an independent state or an improvement for the living conditions of the Uighurs but rather to incorporate them into a greater Islamic Caliphate, which will be ruled by draconian notions of Islamic fundamentalist state and society. 

 

Dr. Siegfried O. Wolf is the Director of Research at South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF)