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Plight of Uyghur people reflects wider Asian tensions

BANGKOK (UCAN): The word, refoulement, which is used to describe the return of refugees to their place of origin is a rather evocative one, which Bangkok-based journalist, Michael Sainsbury, describes as an often violent process, that can involve imprisonment and even death.

Sainsbury describes the decision made by the military junta in Thailand to return 109 Uyghur people back to Xinjiang province in China (Sunday Examiner, July 19) as an egregious, signal moment in the shifting allegiances of the turbulent kingdom, as for so long it has been a big allay of the United States of America” (US).

In an article published by UCAN on July 17, Sainsbury says that it represents a shift in focus to an almost exclusive concentration on military, trade and national rivalries, which ignores one critical factor—religion is increasingly tied to national identity and integral to events.

“The sudden move by the Thai government to repatriate hundreds of Uyghurs from refugee camps—along with the 109 to China and 180 to Turkey—is not just a sign of bending to Beijing’s wishes, as much as that appears to be true,” Sainsbury notes.

He calls it the latest example of religious fault lines appearing and a trend to religious nationalism in the south-east Asian region. He adds that it also poses a threat to the Association of the Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community set to become a reality on December 31 this year.

The overthrow of a democratically elected government in Bangkok in May last year is shifting the allegiances of the once highly pro-US government towards China.

Sainsbury notes that one seductive factor is that concrete support comes from China without human rights strings attached and the seductively waving cheque book has the eyes of former army chief, Prayuth Chan-ocha, goggling.

Returning the Uyghur people to China ingratiates him to his potential benefactors.

He points out that historically, the Uyghur people are trapped far from their original homeland of Turkey. They are a population of about nine million people in China, whose ancestors were carried thousands of kilometres eastwards along the ancient Silk Road.

Sainsbury adds that the action of the Thai military government mirrors the earlier behaviour of neighbouring Cambodia, another member of ASEAN and firmly in China’s column.

In 2009, Cambodia sent back 20 Uyghurs under the cover of night, even as refugee advocates were meeting in Phnom Penh in an attempt to halt the process.

Again, Cambodia is an authoritarian regime led by a prime minister who just seems to have had the luck to win every election since 1986. He has had few friends in the west, despite relying heavily on its aid, mostly from Japan and South Korea.

But Thailand is a Buddhist nation and religion is at the very heart of culture and identity. Muslims have always been problematic, particularly in the south, where the in resort town of Krabi Muslim influence becomes apparent.

And in the far south, three Muslim provinces have been waging a separatist insurgency against the government that has so far seen more than 5,000 people killed, many of them children.

Sainsbury points out that religious nationalism is even more apparent among Thailand’s neighbours. In the Union of Myanmar, radical Buddhists have helped trigger the region’s biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War. The Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar chasing work and a future, only to be trapped in a virtual slave trade.

People traffickers lock them up and have left them to die unless a bounty in excess of US$1,000 ($7,745) per head is paid. The Thai authorities turn a blind eye to this.

In Malaysia, state sponsored pro-Malay policies have seen the country splinter along ethnic lines between the Muslim Malays and the Chinese and Indians that make up the other significant populations.

That division has now been complicated by the threat the Islamic State poses in south-east Asia where, where recruitment is underway in both Malaysia and Indonesia.

He notes that diplomats say that Singapore is expressing concern and in The Philippines, where a sectarian civil war on the southern island of Mindanao has been raging for decades, the creation of a special Muslim autonomous region is imminent.

In Brunei, sharia law has been promulgated. In India, Christian and Muslim minorities are watching with apprehension how the country’s Hindu prime minister, Narendra Modi, and his followers move. Modi was raised a Hindu fundamentalist and has a patchy track record in his home state of Gujarat.


Sainsbury notes, “Religious intolerance is on the rise in Asia and the whiff of religious nationalism, an even more potent combination as places like Torquemada’s Spain and the Ayatollahs’ Iran have shown us, is in the air. No good can come of this.”

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