The recent failed escape of a group of Uighurs from a detention cell in the northeastern province of Mukdahan highlights the Catch-22 situation the country has been caught in for many years with this minority Muslim group from China. It's high time to find an acceptation solution.
Seven Uighurs -- a minority Turkic ethnic group originating in Central and East Asia, some of whom reside in China's Xinjiang province -- broke out of the cell on Saturday, prompting a widespread hunt. Six were eventually recaptured while one remained at large as of press time last night.
Their escape has landed five immigration policemen in trouble. They now face abrupt transfers because of their lax supervision of the detainees.
This was the second escape attempt in the past few years by Uighurs who have been detained in several locations. The previous attempt involving 20 Uighurs in 2017 was a success after they fled a Songkhla detention cell and managed to get to Malaysia. This group of Uighurs had been rounded up in 2014. Unlike the Thai government, the Mahathir Mohamad administration in Malaysia ignored pressure from Beijing, instead handing the migrants over to Turkey.
In fact, the treatment of Uighurs has been a serious blemish on Thailand's human rights record. The military regime in 2014 kowtowed to Beijing's demands, extraditing more than 100 Uighurs whom it alleged were suspected of sedition back to China.
The extradition triggered a tumultuous outcry from human rights advocates, both at home and abroad, and the Prayut government had no choice but to stop further deportations and keep the remaining Uighurs under detention to avoid further condemnation by the international community.
However, after detaining them for almost six years, it seems unreasonable and illogical to keep these Uighurs behind bars any longer. Don't forget that the only laws they breached on setting foot in Thailand were those involving immigration, and they have done their time. More importantly, given the fact that Beijing cannot provide evidence to support its allegations that these Uighurs had a hand in violence or sedition in Xinjiang, Thailand should not forcibly deport them to China. The Prayut government at the same time should start finding a third country willing to take in all the Uighur detainees. Beijing may frown on the idea, but Thailand, as a sovereign state, should have the right -- as well as the courage -- to make this decision.
China has staunchly denied charges about harsh treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang region where at least a million of them have been detained in what is seen by many in the West as a grave abuse of human rights and religious freedom, especially in China's operation of detention camps.
Beijing has hit back hard at international concerns, saying Xinjiang is its domestic affair, while it has claimed the camps are for "vocational training purposes". Yet, in a letter to this newspaper in December last year, Chinese ambassador Lyu Jian did not deny that many sent to the centres are people categorised as being "brainwashed" by violence, terrorism and extremism and the centres seek to "get rid of the influence of extremist thoughts and terrorism while improving their vocational skills".
While it's true that Xinjiang is China's internal affair, Beijing should respect Thailand's decision regarding the remaining Uighurs behind bars here, especially those who have no role in treasonous acts. China also needs to truly recognise the freedom of this minority group, and prove it by acting accordingly.