22 Nov 2014

Escaping China: the perilous journey of the Uighurs

Nearly 300 Uighurs have been found sitting in silence on a mountain in Thailand. Asia correspondent John Sparks investigates and traces the escape route of thousands of Uighurs desperate to flee China.

Until a secret raid on a moonless night in March, Major-General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot thought he was getting a grip on the problem. After the incident, he had to think again.

The 46-year old police commander was handed one of the toughest jobs in Thai policing last year when he was made top immigration cop in southern part of the country. The region is nothing less than a jungle-covered transit lounge, frequented by brokers, smugglers, human traffickers, shadowy boatmen and the like.

What’s more, the Major-General is under pressure. Earlier this year, Thailand was downgraded in a high profile US State Department report on human trafficking. It now occupies lowest rung, otherwise known as “tier 3”, alongside North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The burden of fixing up this mess, caused in part by corrupt and incompetent policing, has fallen on the shoulders of the US-educated immigration chief.

After vowing to shut down the criminal syndicates operating in the region, Thatchai raided a series of traffickers’ camps, extracting 900-odd Rohingya smuggled from neighbouring Burma. He has even managed to make some arrests, including two local “king-pins”.

Uighurs map

Almost 300 people sat on a mountain – in silence

However, after a three hour hike on that pitch black night in March, the Major-General was forced to re-evaluate the scale of his assignment. The police commander and a small group of colleagues found 290 men, women and children, sitting on the top of a mountain – and not a single person said a word.

The police chief told me, “I was really surprised by what we saw. We have never seen this group of people.”

“Were you were expecting to find Rohingya up there?” I asked.

“Yes there are many Rohingya camps in the south, we raid them many times. But (this group) didn’t speak to me at all. We didn’t know how to communicate with them. I tried to speak to them in English but they didn’t speak to me.”

What the Major-General had discovered was an entirely new branch of the people-smuggling business – an entirely new “product-range” to use his phrase, although he had no idea who they were. They did not look much like the migrants and the refugees who typically transit through the area.

“They are totally different from the Rohingya,” he said. “They are so quiet, reading books and doing exercise. Maybe they are middle-class.” Thatchai was impressed by their discipline and sense of community. “They stick together, they have a leader – even if you separate them, they still have a leader.”


Later, the designated head of this mysterious group offered an explanation. He said they were Turkish and were trying “to go to Turkey”. However, he was not prepared to talk about where they had come from. After a series of checks back at headquarters, Thai police began to suspect they were Uighurs (pronounced Wee-gars), a Muslim group from restive plains of western China.

The Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region

Uighurs hail from a part of China called the ‘Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region’. However, the name is something of misnomer.

Xinjiang is not autonomous from Chinese government control. Instead, cities like Kashgar are littered with police and military checks points and the people who live there face a range of draconian restrictions. Children are prevented from entering mosques – and students and civil servants have been prevented from fasting during Ramadan.

“My son learned the Arabic alphabet on his own on an iPad app,” said one middle-aged father told us.  “Now I am afraid to take him to kindergarten in case the authorities accuse me of teaching him about Islam.”

“The troops are here to keep us safe,” said another Uighur, sarcastically.

Human rights groups accuse the Chinese government of pervasive ethnic and religious discrimination.

A paramilitary policeman stands guard near trucks carrying criminals and suspects during a mass sentencing rally at a stadium in Yili, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region May 27, 2014

Wave of terrorist attacks

The Chinese authorities see things differently. Restrictions on religious practices in Xinjiang are required say officials, to ensure that one faith is not favoured over another and the security crackdown is a necessary response they say, to a wave of terrorist attacks nationwide.

It has been a very violent year in China. Uighur separatists have been blamed for a number of frenzied knife attacks at railway stations, a deadly assault in the capital Beijing and a twin-car suicide bombing at a vegetable market in city of Urumqi in Xinjiang.

Well over 100 people have died in the attacks and throughout China, Uighurs are now viewed with fear and suspicion.22_uighur_bus_w

The Uighurs on the mountain

Thousands of Uighurs have fled China over the last five years with the majority paying smuggling networks tens of thousands of dollars per person to move them south. One trafficker told this program that Uighurs are moved in short stages, from China, on to south east Asian nations like Thailand, before reaching the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. When I asked him if he paid bribes he said, “sure, to police officers, immigration (officials), that’s the nature of it.”

Kuala Lumpur acts as a sort of underground transit hub where they gather before trying to arrange onward travel by air. The vast majority want to travel to Turkey – a country which has a sizable Uighur community and it has shown it shown itself willing to take more.

But it’s not easy getting from the airport lobby to the departure gate. Some purchase fake passports to get through immigration, others approach the Turkish Embassy for assistance, and you can see more about this and the rest of their extraordinary 5,000 mile journey, in our exclusive report.

The 290-odd Uighurs from the mountain-top are did not make it Kuala Lumpur however. The men and many of the boys are still stuck in a series of badly overcrowded cells near the Thai-Malaysia border. Major General Thatchai Pitaneelaboot told me the Chinese authorities were currently assessing their nationality. “If they are Chinese they have to go back to China,” he told me in a matter of fact tone.

It is the type of statement that will deeply trouble civil rights organisations – Human Rights Watch says that forcibly returning Uighurs to China would subject them, “to persecution, torture, or other serious human rights violations.” The staff who work at the Thai lock-ups are also worried. One senior employee, who asked not to be names, told me, “we’ve been forced to provide information about their identities to the Chinese.”

There can be no doubt however, that many more Uighurs will continue to make this dangerous trip. After we had finished speaking to Major General Thatchai, we sat down with village elders in southern Thailand and asked them about the smuggling networks. They told us that business was booming. “There two or three hundred Uighurs living in a (nearby) rubber plantation right now,” said one man. “Soon, they’ll on their way to Malaysia.”   ​

Follow John Sparks on Twitter: @c4sparks