Thailand is facing a renewed dilemma over the fate of more than 60 ethnic Uighur asylum seekers amid reports of pressure by China for the group’s return.
The 62 men and women, held in detention centers, represent the last of more than 350 Uighurs found by authorities in Southern Thailand in 2014 who were seeking to travel to Turkey.
Thailand is a key destination for ethnic Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim Turkic minority originating in western China’s Xinjiang province.
Human rights groups say unrest in Xinjiang in recent years was followed by a Chinese central government crackdown against the Muslim community.
Rights groups accuse Beijing of ethnic discrimination, and what they call "severe religious repression and increasing cultural suppression."
Beijing accuses the Uighur community of having links with separatists and terrorist organizations, such as Islamic State.
Hundreds of Uighurs have traveled clandestinely through Southeast Asia in an effort to reach Turkey, which already hosts large Uighur populations.
Thailand’s military government came to power in May 2014 and faced Western international isolation over the deposing of an elected government. Thitinan Pongsudhirak, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn University, said this isolation led to Thailand moving closer to China.
In 2015, Beijing stepped up pressure on Thailand for the Uighurs to be sent to China. At the same time, Turkish diplomats also insisted the people be transferred to Turkey.
In July 2015 Thailand allowed 172 Uighur men, women and children to travel to Turkey. But Thailand faced international condemnation after it deported 109 Uighurs – mostly men – to China. Grim CCTV footage reportedly showed the group in flight back to China, their heads hooded, and security officials sitting on either side of the detainees.
The transporting of the Uighurs to China triggered angry protests against Thai diplomatic buildings in Turkey. In August 2015, a bomb blast at a shrine in central Bangkok, popular with visiting ethnic Chinese, left 20 people dead and dozens injured. A second bomb plot, targeting a restaurant catering to Chinese tourists, failed to go ahead.
The arrest of two ethnic Turks followed, with police blaming the bombing on the breakup of a human trafficking ring. But reports said the attack’s masterminds had fled the country, and analysts suggested a link between the bombing atrocity and the earlier sending of the Uighurs to an unknown fate in China.
Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha called the bombing "the worst in the country’s history."
Analysts said the bombing also led to divisions within the government.
"It also plays into domestic Thai politics about who is in charge and about the dynamics of the people in charge. Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwan appears more pleasing to the Chinese whereas maybe the Prime Minister Prayut is a little more detached or impartial," Thitinan said.
In May 2016, Uighurs held in Thai detention went on a hunger strike, saying they feared for their safety if returned to China.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, an adviser to Deputy Prime Minister Prawit, said a final decision on the Uighur – and other groups – is still pending.
"The situation is we are still – the National Security Council in particular, is still evaluating the possibilities of sending back different groups, including the Uighur group, to their origin countries or the third party countries," Panitan told VOA.
Prime Minister Prayut is the chair of the National Security Council.
"It’s there in the process. They are evaluating but no major decision has been made yet, so that it means they are on hold – and this is not the Uighur alone but for all groups," Panitan said.
Thailand is also evaluating its access to assess the Uighurs once they are back in China.
But rights groups say major concerns remain over the well-being of the ethnic minorities.
Dolkum Isa, secretary general of the World Uyghur (sic) Congress based in Munich, in emailed comments to VOA, said he fears for the safety of those still in detention.
"The Thai government must act in accordance with its international obligations in terms of ensuring that the Uighurs held there indefinitely [in detention centers] are processed in a speedy fashion," Isa said.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Brad Adams, in emailed comments, said no Uighurs be returned to China because of the threat of them disappearing, "into the maw of a non-transparent, non-accountable prison system, where they are liable to be tortured and worse."
Thitinan said the combination of fears of another terrorist attack if the Uighurs are transported to China, combined with Thailand’s improving international diplomatic ties, including with the United States, may ease the pressure from China.
"So perhaps this is a big difference to two, three years ago. China is not the only game in town. If the Western countries show some movement then that could lead to some leverage for the military government to deal with China." "So Thailand is not fully beholden to Chinese preferences," he said.