BANGKOK/ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Thailand’s prime minister defended on Thursday a decision to forcibly return nearly 100 Uighur Muslim migrants to China despite rights groups’ fears they could face ill-treatment, saying it was not Bangkok’s fault if they suffered problems.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha also raised the possibility of shutting the Thai Embassy in Turkey after protesters attacked the honorary consulate in Istanbul, smashing windows and ransacking parts of the building, over the expulsion of the Uighurs back to China.
China’s treatment of its Turkic language-speaking Uighur minority is a sensitive issue in Turkey and has strained bilateral ties ahead of a planned visit to Beijing this month by President Tayyip Erdogan. Some Turks see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious heritage with their Uighur “brothers” and Turkey is home to a large Uighur diaspora.
“I ask that we look after the safety of the embassy staff first,” Prayuth told reporters. “But if the situation gets worse then we might temporarily have to close the embassy in Turkey.”
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape unrest in China’s western Xinjiang region have traveled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey. China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs.
“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, he said. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.
“If we send them back (to China) and there is a problem that is not our fault,” said Prime Minister Prayuth, the general who led a coup against Thailand’s elected government in May 2014.
The United States condemned the deportations and asked Thailand to stop them, saying the Uighurs could face harsh treatment in China, State Department spokesman John Kirby said.
“We strongly urge the government of Thailand, and other governments in countries where Uighurs have taken refuge, not to carry out further forced deportations of ethnic Uighurs,” Kirby said in a statement. He also urged China to ensure proper treatment of the Uighurs.
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 in Beijing on Thursday, saying the Uighurs were “firstly Chinese”.
Beijing denies restricting the Uighurs’ religious freedoms and blames Islamist militants for a rise in violent attacks in Xinjiang in the past three years in which hundreds have died.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry condemned the expulsion of the Uighurs to China, saying it violated international humanitarian law.
Erdogan said he planned to raise the plight of the Uighurs during his coming trip to China, according to local media. He also criticized some recent attacks on Asian tourists in Turkey, saying the attackers betrayed Turkey’s “most ancient tradition” of hospitality.
The Istanbul protesters, using wooden planks and stones, smashed windows and broke into the Thai consulate late on Wednesday, throwing folders and personal belongings on the floor, video footage published by local media showed.
On Thursday, police in the capital Ankara used tear gas to disperse a group of about 100 protesters at the Chinese Embassy after they knocked down a barricade. The street remained closed to traffic.
The two incidents were the latest in mostly orchestrated by a youth group linked to Turkey’s opposition Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
A Chinese restaurant, its owner Turkish and its cook ironically Uighur, was vandalized last week, while a group of Korean tourists was mistakenly attacked in Istanbul’s historic Sultanahmet district, according to the Hurriyet newspaper.
MHP leader Devlet Bahceli, whose party could be the junior coalition partner in Turkey’s next government, said it was understandable for members of his party’s youth wing to have mistaken the Korean tourists for Chinese.
“What feature differentiates a Korean from a Chinese? They see that they both have slanted eyes. How can they tell the difference?” Bahceli told Hurriyet newspaper on Wednesday.
Protesters waving the blue flag of the Uighur independence movement also marched on Thursday to the Thai Embassy in Ankara.
“We are here to protest Thailand’s and China’s human rights abuses. The Chinese cruelty has spread to Thailand,” Seyit Tumturk, vice president of the World Uighur Congress, told Reuters outside the Thai Embassy.
Turkey has vowed to keep its doors open to Uighur migrants fleeing persecution in China, exacerbating a row with Beijing. Around 170 Uighur women and children arrived in Istanbul last week from Thailand, where they had been held for more than a year for illegal entry.
“It is very shocking and disturbing that Thailand caved in to pressure from Beijing,” Sunai Phasuk, Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters. “In China they can face serious abuses including torture and disappearance.”
The United Nations refugee agency said it was alarmed by Thailand’s decision to deport the Uighurs. “We are shocked by this deportation of some 100 people and consider it a flagrant violation of international law,” said Volker Turk, UNHCR’s Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.
Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Pracha Hariraksapitak in BANGKOK, Ben Blanchard in BEIJING, Ece Toksabay and Gulsen Solaker in ANKARA and Ayla Jean Yackley in ISTANBUL; Editing by Jeremy Laurence, Gareth Jones, Toni Reinhold