Lucy Hornby and Christian Shepherd
Financial Times - August 5, 2015
Uighurs forcibly repatriated to China from Thailand last month tried to resist getting on the aircraft for fear they would be executed, China has confirmed for the first time. Thailand in July returned 109 Uighurs out of the 400 who were discovered last year in people-smuggling camps in its southern jungles, in their attempt to flee China for refuge in Turkey. The previous week, Turkey had agreed to take 173 of the Uighurs, many of them women and small children. Uighurs are a Muslim people with cultural and linguistic ties to Turkey that are native to the resource-rich region of Xinjiang on China’s border with Central Asia. Beijing blames rising strife in the region on Islamist terrorism and independence movements, while Uighur groups point to an influx of Chinese business interests and discriminatory employment and religious restrictions. China has accused the repatriated Uighurs of attempting to flee in order to “commit jihad” overseas, but statements from some of the returnees published in Chinese state media this week paint a picture of people who spent all their savings to pay off human smuggling groups known in China as snakeheads. The clash between the Uighur returnees and Chinese and Thai security forces was detailed in series of interviews with a number of Uighurs now detained in Urumqi. The broadcast of confessions from jail by high-profile detainees is a Communist practice that has been revived in recent years, and is frequently used in cases involving Uighurs. The reports of the fighting, which Chinese media said left at least one man with a head injury, are the first since the World Uyghur Congress, an exile group, claimed in early July that 25 people had been killed in fights with authorities at the Thai airport as they were forced to board aircraft for China. The group retracted its report after it was denied by the Thai government. The forced repatriations caused tensions between China and Turkey, which Beijing accused of helping Uighurs flee, ahead of a state visit by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, in late July. During his visit, Mr Erdogan pledged to work with China to “combat the influence of terrorist groups” and declared himself opposed to “activities that could harm China’s territorial integrity”. In their published confessions, the Uighurs said that they were led astray by snakeheads and jihadis and claimed they were treated well in detention by Chinese authorities. The confessions offer a glimpse into the smuggling networks throughout Southeast Asia on which Uighurs and others rely on to exit China. One man said he spent Rmb30,000 ($4,800) to cross the Chinese border, then paid traffickers another Rmb9,000 in Vietnam and $3,600 in Cambodia. Another gave up land he had contracted in Xinjiang to bring his wife and daughter out. Muhemmet Imin, who in 2010 migrated from the Uighur heartland in south Xinjiang to the Xinjiang capital, Urumqi, said he had spent Rmb70,000 of his father’s savings to pay his way to Turkey, where he told his father he would start a business. “My father would not touch that money because it was so precious, and now I lost it all,” according to the Xinjiang Daily, a local state-run paper. China’s Ministry of Public Security said in July that 13 of the Uighurs were implicated in terrorist activities. Photos since circulated of the flight show all of the returnees shackled to accompanying police officers with their heads covered in black hoods.