Wednesday, September 10, 2014

From China to Jihad? By Richard Bernstein

The New York Review of Books - September 8, 2014

It’s a very long way from China’s arid Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the country’s far northwest to its semi-tropical borders with Vietnam, Laos, and Burma in the south, and then it’s another precarious distance from there, down rivers and across fortified borders, all the way to the seaside Thai town of Songkhla, about forty miles from the Malaysian border. And it’s longer still from Songkhla to the battlefields of Syria, thousands of miles away. But this town is where more than two hundred members of the Uighur minority from Xinjiang—many of them women and children—were arrested by Thai authorities in March this year. They have been accused, apparently, of planning to wage jihad in Syria.
Among the many recent stories concerning foreigners setting out to fight in Syria, the allegations about the Uighurs arrested in Songkhla stand out. In fact, these people, along with another couple hundred recent Uighur escapees from China, most of them seized near the Thai-Cambodia border, signal something new in the movement of refugees around the world. China’s Uighurs, who now number some ten million and are concentrated in western China, are a mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking people that has been increasingly restive under Chinese rule, The signs are that more and more of them, escorted by well-paid people smugglers, are making the long, arduous journey south, escaping what they say is harsh 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.