The distance between Xinjiang Province, home to China’s Muslim minority Uighur community, and the battlefields of Syria is more than just a stretch of the imagination. But as Pulitzer Center grantee Richard Bernstein reports in a timely dispatch for The New York Review of Books, Chinese authorities are insisting that more than 200 Uighurs—many of them women and children—arrested by Thai authorities in March were on their way to wage jihad in Syria.
More likely, says Richard, the Uighurs are fleeing well-documented Chinese repression in Xinjiang. “They are like other refugees in this sense, but with one major difference. The Uighurs arriving in southeast Asia have triggered a tense, mostly behind-the-scenes tug of war between China, which is pressuring Thailand to send the Uighurs back, and the West, including the United States, which has entreated the Thais to reject China’s demand, arguing that giving in to it would subject the Uighurs to savage mistreatment.”
Thailand, a close U.S. ally but a close-by neighbor of China, is in a tight spot. According to Richard, “a sort of compromise is likely: as a gesture to its big and powerful neighbor, Thailand may agree to repatriate a few of the Uighurs, while allowing most of them to move on to Turkey,” a nation that has agreed to grant them asylum.