BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand sought on Friday to defuse international criticism of its decision to deport nearly 100 Uighur Muslims back to China, saying it had rejected a request from Beijing to return all the Uighur migrants held in its detention camps.
The deportations have drawn condemnation from the United States and human rights groups and sparked sometimes violent protests in Turkey, home to a large Uighur diaspora. Some Turks have a strong sense of shared cultural and religious heritage with the mainly Muslim Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language.
China accused “some foreign governments and forces” of trying to exploit the Uighur issue for their own ends and said it was “cooperating normally” with Thailand to curb illegal immigration.
Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy Thai government spokesman, said Bangkok, in line with “international agreement and international law”, had to verify the nationality of all the Uighur migrants case by case before deciding their fate.
“It is not like all of a sudden China asks for Uighurs and we just give them back. China asked for all Uighur Muslims in Thailand to be sent back but we said we could not do it,” he told reporters.
Thailand has already identified more than 170 Uighurs as Turkish citizens and sent them to Turkey over the past month, said Weerachon, while nearly 100 were sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) strongly urged China to ensure proper treatment of the Uighurs.
On Friday New York-based Human Rights Watch said the Uighurs faced “grim” maltreatment back in China.
“Thailand should make it clear it won’t further violate international law by immediately announcing a moratorium on additional deportations of Turkic people to China,” said Sophie Richardson, China director for Human Rights Watch.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying hit back at Beijing’s critics at a daily news briefing on Friday.
“We have noticed that some foreign governments and forces have abused the facts and called these illegal immigrants, without any basis, refugees. They have unscrupulously criticized the normal law cooperation between China and Thailand on the issue of fighting illegal immigration,” she said.
The Global Times, an influential tabloid published by China’s ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper, said those deported were “illegal immigrants” or members of gangs involved in people smuggling.
“Many among them planned to reach Turkey through Southeast Asian countries and then head to Syria and Iraq to participate in terrorist groups,” the Global Times added.
Beijing denies the accusations of human rights groups that it restricts the Uighurs’ religious freedoms. It blames Islamist militants for a rise in violent attacks in Xinjiang in the past three years in which hundreds have died.
The Uighur issue has strained relations between China and Turkey ahead of a planned visit to Beijing this month by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish police used tear gas on Thursday to disperse about 100 protesters at the Chinese Embassy in the capital Ankara after they knocked down a barricade.
Protesters also attacked Thailand’s honorary consulate in Istanbul late on Wednesday, smashing windows and breaking in.
Erdogan, clearly keen to assuage Beijing’s concerns, suggested the protests might have been aimed at damaging his China trip, when he plans to raise the Uighurs’ plight.
In comments late on Thursday to foreign ambassadors based in Ankara, Erdogan branded some media coverage of the deportations as “lies or exploitative” and said of the protests: “These provocative incidents do not become us.”
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha earlier raised the possibility of shutting the Thai embassy in Ankara, but on Friday stressed the need for good ties with both Turkey and China.
“Thailand and Turkey are not rivals and we do not want to destroy trade and commerce with Turkey,” Prayuth said in Bangkok. “At the same time, we do not want to destroy the relationship between China and Thailand.”
Additional reporting by Sui-Lee Wee in BEIJING and Ayla Jean Yackley in ISTANBUL; Editing by Gareth Jones