AFTER A military coup in May 2014 that converted Thailand from democracy to dictatorship, the country bade farewell to free expression and fair elections. Now, it’s saying goodbye to its international obligations, too. There’s no starker example of Thailand’s legal and moral failures than its decision this month to send 109 refugee Uighurs — an ethnically Turkish Muslim minority — back to China, where they will almost surely face persecution and possibly torture.
China’s Uighurs reside mostly in the far-western region of Xinjiang, but their roots are Turkic. That sets them apart from the Han majority in China, where Uighurs have been systematically denied their rights for years amid mounting violence on both sides. Getting out of China in the first place has not been easy for the Uighurs, but with Thailand and countries such as Malaysia and Cambodia capitulating to Chinese repatriation demands, staying out is becoming just as difficult.
Thailand’s repatriation comes after a strong rebuke from the Chinese government after Thailand allowed approximately 170 Uighur women and children to travel to Turkey. China is Thailand’s second-largest trading partner, which makes it especially dangerous for the smaller country to antagonize its powerful neighbor. This month’s repatriation is an unsurprising attempt at appeasement. But Thailand has bigger obligations it should keep in mind: As a participant in the Convention Against Torture, Thailand has undertaken not to send anyone in its custody back to a state where the individual would face persecution. For a Uighur, China is exactly that state.
Uighurs returned to China in the past have been subject to arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, usually followed by criminal prosecution on trumped-up charges. In this case, China has said that at least some of the Uighurs deported from Thailand are terrorists eager to join jihad — without offering any evidence to support those claims.
This month’s move lowers Thailand to the standard of the very country it seeks to gratify: China is an infamous practitioner of forced repatriation, having sent tens of thousands of fleeing North Koreans back to their home country over the course of two decades.
Though it is Thailand’s responsibility to uphold its own obligations instead of pandering to known human rights violators, China deserves equal censure. Thailand should issue an immediate moratorium on deporting not only Uighurs but also anyone whose refugee status is pending. And China should provide open information about the well-being and whereabouts of those returned to its territory against their will. It should also stop twisting arms to make weaker countries do its dirty work.