Thailand sends nearly 100 Uighur migrants back to China

BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand confirmed on Thursday it had forcibly returned nearly 100 Uighur migrants to China, heightening tensions between Ankara and Beijing over the treatment of the Turkic language-speaking and largely Muslim minority.

Turkish protesters attacked the Thai honorary consulate in Istanbul overnight in protest over Bangkok’s expulsion of the Ugihurs, smashing windows and ransacking parts of the building.

Thailand’s embassy in Ankara warned around 1,300 Thais living in Turkey to “be on alert” following the attack. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha on Thursday mooted the possibility of closing the embassy if the situation worsened.

Rights groups have expressed concern over Thailand’s decision to send the Uighurs back to China fearing they could face ill-treatment and even torture.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs have fled unrest in China’s western Xinjiang region where hundreds of people have been killed, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities. Many Uighurs have traveled through Southeast Asia to Turkey.

“Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality,” Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.

A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and sent to Turkey, and nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.

“It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters.

“By forcibly sending back at least 90 Uighurs, Thailand has violated international law. In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance.”

Weerachon told reporters that Thailand had asked China to look after the safety of the Uighurs sent back. “China said it would look after the safety of these people,” he said.

Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, would not confirm whether the Uighurs had been deported to China but spoke in general terms about the issue at a daily news briefing on Thursday, saying the Uighurs were “firstly Chinese”.

China’s treatment of the Uighurs has aroused concern in Turkey, where many see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious background. The Uighurs are regarded as “brothers” in Turkey, which already hosts a large Uighur community.

China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighur.

Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK and Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry and Jeremy Laurence