(China Matters) The year-long tug of war between Turkey and the PRC over several hundred Uyghur detainees in Thailand was finally resolved, Solomonic fashion, by Thailand sending 170+ women and children to Istanbul in early July in a little noticed event, and the deportation of 100+ Uyghur men to the PRC this week, which has occasioned much public ballyhoo, some nasty incidents inside Turkey, and toothless (and, I expect somewhat less than wholehearted) official execration by the US and the EU.
A most interesting sidebar to the Thailand story has been the wheels coming off the reckless Turkish passports-to-Uyghurs scheme.
To humblebrag here, I was one of the few to note and write about over the last few months, starting in February and here, and here in April, as well as my recent epic Turkey/Uyghur backgrounder.
To complement recent (well, as recent as a day or two before) public references to unnamed foreign countries providing documentation to Uyghurs, a Public Security Bureau official went on record to brief foreign journos that, yes, it is Turkey.
Hat tip to @akahnnyc for the link. Thanks!
Please note that the PRC Foreign Ministry, as well as Global Times, were already raising the passport issue at the beginning of 2015. First the PRC employed the polite fiction that some profit-minded freelancers were selling Turkish passports to Uyghurs; then it was “consulates and embassies of unnamed countries” were dishing out documents; now, unambiguously, the PRC is pointed the finger at the Turkish government.
In my opinion, the PRC is in a strong position. I expect it hopes that by laying out its case it will gain the understanding of the Western media that Turkey really is doing something stupid and dangerous by enabling the flight of Uyghur malcontents who might end up fighting in Syria or worse.
Looks like Reuters might need a few repeat treatments to get the message. It reports on the PSB backgrounder, throws in some persecuted Uyghur tropes, and completely misses the fact that the deportation of the 100 Uyghur men to the PRC by the Thai government was preceded by allowing 170 women and children among the detainees to fly to Istanbul the week before.
“Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia will give them proof of identity,” Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Criminal Investigation Department, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing on Saturday.
“They are obviously Chinese but they will give them identities as Turkish nationals.”
Tong said that hundreds of Uyghurs had been given documents by Turkish diplomats, especially in Kuala Lumpur, and then allowed into Turkey.
Neither the Turkish Foreign Ministry nor the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur were able to immediately provide comment.
The accusation is likely to further anger Ankara, already alarmed by the return of more than 100 Uyghurs to China from Thailand this week.
Turkey's "Passports for Uyghurs" Scheme Continues Its Messy Public Unraveling https://t.co/8BgV1XcJm2#China #Turkey pic.twitter.com/zVPJPyR1NN
— Ian56 (@Ian56789) November 22, 2015
But upon arriving, Uyghurs have no chance of finding legal work and some end up with extremist groups, Tong said, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing accuses of waging an insurrection campaign in Xinjiang to set up their own state.
“They are very easily controlled by certain local forces, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other terrorist groups. They organize the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder,” Tong said.
“There is competition for them. Some are sent to Iraq, some to Syria. The terrorist groups there lack people. They will snatch people away. The terrorist groups will pay, at least $2,000 a person. It’s their way of recruiting soldiers.”
That Mr. Tong knows what he’s talking about, I think. The outlines of this story have been clear for months.
The only remaining grey area is whether all the Uyghur men who end up in Syria are simply hapless “cannon fodder” recruited by jihadis, or whether the Turkish security services identify some particularly capable Uyghur militants, provide documents, and enable travel, training, and battlefield experience in Syria in order to cultivate Turkey-friendly assets in Syria or potentially in AfPak/Central Asia. Might never get to the bottom of that one, unless the PRC decides to crank up the evidentiary apparatus another notch in order to make sure Western journos finally get the point.
Clearly, the PRC does not intend to yield on the issue of “refoulement” (the forcible return to nasty home countries of refugees, a humanitarian no-no, and the default US/EU stance on the handling of Uyghur refugees*) and is doing its best to reduce the political heat for Thailand and other countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that hold Uyghur refugees and might want to get rid of them. Per the Reuters piece.
The Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation, quoting a Thai Foreign Ministry release, reported on Friday that the Chinese government has invited Thai government officials to visit China to observe its treatment of the Uyghur migrants sent back to the country in an attempt to quash rumours that they were severely punished or killed.
The National Security Council of Thailand would consider inviting representatives of international organisations such as International Committee of the Red Cross to travel to China with the government officials.
The Thai ministry’s statement said that the Chinese government had reassured the Thai government that it would treat those people with fairness and guarantee their safety.
Moreover, care would be taken of those found not guilty and they would be returned to society. They would also be provided with farmlands, the Chinese government said.
I’m sure there’s a lot of snickering about this, but the PRC wants Uyghurs back and without hope of overseas recourse, havens, or foreign humanitarian hand-wringing. I would expect the central government would arrange for the ostentatious pampering of these refouled Uyghurs (rather than the standard brutal treatment at the hands of the local security outfits in Xinjiang) in order to reconcile neighboring nations to the PRC’s demands.
The facts that the AKP & MHP youth wings have been harassing the Thai embassy, and the PRC has now essentially gone public with its accusations against Turkey indicate that Turkey was not completely satisfied with the partial release and the PRC is not completely happy with Turkey’s attitude.
But the fact that nobody is talking about the obvious “women & children go/men go back” deal is an indication that the mutual rancor is still contained. (Here, by the way, is a Daily Sabah story on the 173 women and children after they arrived in Turkey. Note the line: “The rising oppression by the Chinese government and the effects of famine on Uighurs has left nearly 35 million people dead.” There are only 11 million Uyghurs in the PRC, and the 35 million death toll looks like the China-wide count from the Great Leap Forward/Great Famine of the 1950s; it’s a rather unsettling that such a shaky grasp of the Uyghur situation in the PRC is apparently received wisdom in the mainstream Turkish media.)
There are several other difficult Uyghur refugee cases pending.
There’s one, in Indonesia, that looks like pure dynamite that might blow up in Turkey’s face.
Judging by reports to date, Turkey allegedly provided passports to Uyghurs implicated in the notorious Kunming railway station outrage (33 dead, 100+ wounded). Said Uyghurs, instead of docilely flying to Turkey, surrendering their beautiful Turkish passports, and proceeding to the slums of Kayseri (the town in Turkey designated as the haven for Uyghur refugees), appear to have snuck into Indonesia via Malaysia and attempted to hook up with a notorious Muslim militant on a remote island; a militant, by the way, whose organization reportedly declared its allegiance to ISIS.
Yes, it’s that tasty.
Four men—holding impeccable Turkish passports and insisting they are those Turkish people even though they couldn’t remember the birthdates on the passports—are currently on trial in Indonesia under these charges. And, no, the Indonesian government is not happy, and has publicly stated it expects to ship the four back to PRC after the trial.
The Turkish embassy is busy dodging the obvious question of whether it will affirm the four as Turkish citizens despite what I expect is compelling evidence provided by the PRC that they are Uyghur citizens of the PRC known to the Public Security Bureau, or whether it’s better to throw in the towel and acknowledge that, yes, they are Uyghur militants who got Turkish passports from some Turkish embassy and started running around Asia in search of mischief.
Fact is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the brouhaha surrounding the refoulement of the 100 Uyghur men back to PRC isn’t part of a Turkish government strategy to dodge the public relations fallout from the Indonesian case. You know, “We need to shift the frame away from ‘Turkish government irresponsibly gives undetectable travel documents to Muslim terrorists.’ Instead, let’s push ‘China persecutes innocent Uyghur brothers. And we’ll use the deal we just made with the Chinese…to dump on the Chinese!’” This, to me, seems like an Erdogan-type brainwave. And the PRC response is, “Hey, Turkey’s just another crappy authoritarian regime like us. They can’t get away with that! Get Tong out to background the Western journos on the passport thing.”
The Uyghur project is obviously important to Turkey politically and, potentially, as a geopolitical play in Central Asia. Whether the Turkish government is going to suck it up, repudiate the passport program, and leave the Uyghurs to the untender mercies of the PRC government remains to be seen.
But Turkey is playing with fire here. And I expect the PRC will be relentless in its pursuit of, at least, Uyghur men detained in Asian countries in order to forestall their passage to Turkey.
* In an interesting sidelight, does anybody remember the Uyghurs at Guantanamo? It’s important because the United States committed itself to the principle of non-refoulement of Uyghur refugees even as the US tacitly green-lit harsh PRC measures in Xinjiang—with the implication that Uyghur dissent was terrorism–as GWOT-justified responses.
The Bush administration harbored sympathies for Uyghur aspirations even as it scooped up Uyghurs for detention and interrogation at Guantanmo. The Uyghurs were quickly judged to be no threat to the United States even though some of them had received some training in AQ camps in Afghanistan, under the logic that, if they were terrorists, they were anti-PRC terrorists a.k.a. “non-enemy combatants”. So it was decided they could not be sent back to the PRC because of the fear of torture.
So the Uyghurs became “non-enemy combatants” and “refugees protected by the principle of non-refoulement”. Which apparently did not protect them from interrogation by PRC security officers after the Guantanamo administration had obligingly softened them up with some sleep deprivation (a technique apparently learned from the experience of US POWs interrogated by the PRC during the Korean War!).
President Bush tried to release the Uyghur detainees to other countries, but ran into ferocious PRC pressure on any country that dared considered receiving them. So the Uyghurs were assigned for indefinite detention in low-security facilities at Gitmo. President Obama considered the Uyghur detainees to be the low-hanging fruit of his close-Guantanamo campaign. But, when he tried to release some of them into the United States (a prerequisite required by other countries to take some Uyghur detainees themselves), he ran into a carefully-constructed and extremely hypocritical and dishonest Republican buzzsaw. Full facts–including the eruption of Newt Gingrich s the enthusiastic pointman for the sabotage operation– only at China Matters, natch. Most if not all of the Uyghur detainees have now been released, I believe.
The PRC has tacitly accepted the principle of non-refoulement as it pertains to Tibetan refugees, who get to continue on to Dharmsala if they “touch base” at a safe harbor in Katmandu, Nepal (This unpublicized deal is the key “canary in the coal mine” for US-PRC engagement on Tibet, especially as the PRC gets less cooperative with the US and more assertive with Nepal.)
But the PRC isn’t going to accept a similar arrangement for Uyghur refugees as it, rather understandably, deems the security risks unacceptable.
Below the fold, an update I posted the day before, when the first shoe dropped on the passport issue, courtesy of Global Times. And, hey, if you want to understand the role of the Uyghur issue in Turkish politics and regional strategy—and the Uyghur element in Erdogan’s gonzo medieval cosplay honor guard—I suggest, humblebragging again, that you read my long, in-depth piece from July 1.
Update, July 10: In the case of the several hundred Uyghur refugees detained in Thailand, the Thai government deported 100 Uyghur men to China a few days after they permitted 170 or so women and children to be flown to Istanbul with little fanfare. This development would appear to confirm that the entire operation was choreographed by Turkey, Thailand, and the PRC quid pro quo style so that all parties could claim victory: Turkey could continue to present itself as protector of the Uyghurs, the PRC could assert the principle that Uyghur men escaping the PRC potentially to join Islamic militants should be refulged, and I guess Thailand gets to look like a credible regional interlocutor.
However, as I argue in the piece below [link here], deal-cutting on the Uyghur issue is being overtaken by Turkish domestic politics as well as security calculations. The anti-China genii is leaping out of the bottle, and attacks on PRC individuals and interests (and, most unfortunately, individuals and interests perceived to be PRC-linked but are actually Korean, Taiwanese or whatever) is becoming the lingua franca of the competing youth movements of the AKP and MHP.
The PRC is starting to push back in public fora, raising complaints about unnamed foreign embassies and consulates providing passports to Uyghurs so they could flee the PRC. The unnamed country is, I think it is completely safe to say, is Turkey.
Regardless of sympathies in western capitals for Uyghur aspirations, the PRC criticisms are likely to resonate. Turkish biometric passports are good for travel into the EU. Even if Turkish security services display amazing efficiency in intercepting Uyghur travellers at the Turkish border and divesting them of these passports, mistakes can happen, leaving potentially politicized, potentially militant Uyghur refugees to travel freely.
And it appears highly probable that the mistake has already happened.
The most explosive Turkish travel documents case concerns the four Uyghurs–alleged Uyghurs, since they claim Turkish citizenship and the Turkish government has not repudiated them–who, allegedly, a) were implicated in the Kunming train station massacre b) received Turkish passports anyway and c) instead of proceeding obediently to Turkey fled to Indonesia via Malaysia and d) allegedly tried to join up with an Indonesian Islamist militant group.
The PRC will take Turkish advocacy of the Uyghur cause very seriously and if the Turkish government persists in cultivating its Uyghur ties, things could turn very ugly very quickly.