Central Asia | 'Passports for Uyghurs' story shadows Turkey’s relations with PRC

‘Passports for Uyghurs’ story shadows Turkey’s relations with PRC

July 13, 2015 12:08 PM (UTC+8)

 

The year-long tug of war between Turkey and the PRC over several hundred Uyghur detainees in Thailand was finally resolved, Solomonic fashion, by Thailand sending 170+ women and children to Istanbul in early July in a little noticed event, and the deportation of 100+ Uyghur men to the PRC last week, which has occasioned much public ballyhoo, some ugly incidents inside Turkey, and toothless (and, I expect somewhat less than wholehearted) official execration by the US and the EU.

A most interesting sidebar to the Thailand story has been the wheels coming off the reckless Turkish passports-to-Uyghurs scheme.

To complement recent public references to unnamed foreign countries providing documentation to Uyghurs, a Public Security Bureau official went on record to brief foreign journos that, yes, it is Turkey.

Uyghur refugees in Istanbul airport; Photo: Radio Free Asia
Uyghur refugees in Istanbul airport; Photo: Radio Free Asia

The PRC Foreign Ministry, as well as Global Times, were already raising the passport issue at the beginning of 2015.  First the PRC employed the polite fiction that some profit-minded freelancers were selling Turkish passports to Uyghurs; then it was “unnamed consulates and embassies” were dishing out documents; now, unambiguously, the PRC is pointed the finger at the Turkish government.

Per Reuters:

“Turkish embassies in Southeast Asia will give them proof of identity,” Tong Bishan, division chief of the Ministry of Public Security’s Criminal Investigation Department, told a small group of foreign reporters in Beijing on Saturday.

“They are obviously Chinese but they will give them identities as Turkish nationals.”

Tong said that hundreds of Uyghurs had been given documents by Turkish diplomats, especially in Kuala Lumpur, and then allowed into Turkey.

Neither the Turkish Foreign Ministry nor the Turkish embassy in Kuala Lumpur were able to immediately provide comment.

The accusation is likely to further anger Ankara, already alarmed by the return of more than 100 Uyghurs to China from Thailand this week.

But upon arriving, Uyghurs have no chance of finding legal work and some end up with extremist groups, Tong said, like the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which Beijing accuses of waging an insurrection campaign in Xinjiang to set up their own state.

“They are very easily controlled by certain local forces, especially the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and other terrorist groups. They organize the youths, they brainwash them, and get them to the front line to fight. They are cannon fodder,” Tong said.

“There is competition for them. Some are sent to Iraq, some to Syria. The terrorist groups there lack people. They will snatch people away. The terrorist groups will pay, at least $2,000 a person. It’s their way of recruiting soldiers.”

That Mr. Tong knows what he’s talking about, I think.  The outlines of this story have been clear for months.

The only remaining grey area is whether all the Uyghur men who end up in Syria are simply hapless “cannon fodder” recruited by jihadis, or whether the Turkish security services identify some particularly capable Uyghur militants, provide documents, and enable travel, training, and battlefield experience in Syria in order to cultivate Turkey-friendly assets in Syria or potentially in AfPak/Central Asia.  Might never get to the bottom of that one, unless the PRC decides to crank up the evidentiary apparatus another notch in order to make sure Western journos finally get the point.

Clearly, the PRC does not intend to yield on the issue of “refoulement” (the forcible return to nasty home countries of refugees, a humanitarian no-no, and the default US/EU stance on the handling of Uyghur refugees) and is doing its best to reduce the political heat for Thailand and other countries, such as Malaysia and Indonesia, that hold Uyghur refugees and might want to get rid of them.  Per the Reuters piece.

The Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation, quoting a Thai Foreign Ministry release, reported on Friday that the Chinese government has invited Thai government officials to visit China to observe its treatment of the Uyghur migrants sent back to the country in an attempt to quash rumours that they were severely punished or killed.

The National Security Council of Thailand would consider inviting representatives of international organisations such as International Committee of the Red Cross to travel to China with the government officials.

The Thai ministry’s statement said that the Chinese government had reassured the Thai government that it would treat those people with fairness and guarantee their safety.

Moreover, care would be taken of those found not guilty and they would be returned to society. They would also be provided with farmlands, the Chinese government said.

I’m sure there’s a lot of snickering about this, but the PRC wants the Uyghurs back and without hope of overseas recourse, havens, or foreign humanitarian hand-wringing.  I would expect the central government would arrange for the ostentatious pampering of these refouled Uyghurs (rather than the standard brutal treatment at the hands of the local security outfits in Xinjiang) in order to reconcile neighboring nations to the PRC’s demands.

There are several other difficult Uyghur refugee cases pending.

There’s one, in Indonesia, that looks like pure dynamite that might blow up in Turkey’s face.

Judging by reports to date, Turkey allegedly provided passports to Uyghurs implicated in the notorious Kunming railway station outrage (33 dead, 100+ wounded).  Said Uyghurs, instead of docilely flying to Turkey, surrendering their beautiful Turkish passports, and proceeding to the slums of Kayseri (the town in Turkey designated as the haven for Uyghur refugees), appear to have snuck into Indonesia via Malaysia and attempted to hook up with a notorious Muslim militant on a remote island; a militant, by the way, whose organization reportedly declared its allegiance to ISIS.

Four men — holding impeccable Turkish passports and insisting they are those Turkish people even though they couldn’t remember the birthdates on the passports — are currently on trial in Indonesia under these charges.  And, no, the Indonesian government is not happy, and has publicly stated it expects to ship the four back to PRC after the trial.

The Turkish embassy is busy dodging the obvious question of whether it will affirm the four as Turkish citizens despite what I expect is compelling evidence provided by the PRC that they are Uyghur citizens of the PRC known to the Public Security Bureau, or whether it’s better to throw in the towel and acknowledge that, yes, they are Uyghur militants who got Turkish passports from some Turkish embassy and started running around Asia in search of mischief.

The Uyghur project is obviously important to Turkey politically and, potentially, as a geopolitical play in Central Asia.  Whether the Turkish government is going to suck it up, repudiate the passport program, and leave the Uyghurs to the untender mercies of the PRC government remains to be seen.

But Turkey is playing with fire here.  And I expect the PRC will be relentless in its pursuit of, at least, Uyghur men detained in Asian countries in order to forestall their passage to Turkey.

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