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What is a Uighur Refugee?

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To understand the context of this tweet from Human Rights Watch’s Ken Roth:

Kenneth Roth ‏@KenRoth 17h

Growing number of ‪#Uighurs trying to flee to Southeast Asia speaks to severe repression in ‪#China. Refuge needed. ‪http://trib.al/RhN3crS

it might be useful to understand that the United States maintains a refugee channel through Nepal for Tibetans from inside the PRC’s Tibetan Autonomous Region to make their way to Dharmsala.

The PRC is not happy with this arrangement, since most of the adults return to Tibet after their visit (the children stay in school in India).

The benign explanation is the parents got a shot of religious exhaltation by obtaining an audience with the Dalai Lama and go home to go on with their quotidian occupations.  The explanation that the PRC government probably leans toward is that these Tibetans are receiving training and resources in Dharmsala to make the PRC occupation of Tibetan regions more difficult.

A similar arrangement for Uighurs is pretty unlikely since no neighboring countries seem inclined to attract the PRC’s anger by granting refugee Uighurs an official haven.  There are unofficial havens across the Karakorum Pass, but they produce Uighur terrorists (or, if you prefer, Uighur freedom fighters;  the Uighurs at Guantanamo were considered combatants, but “non-enemy combatants”, therefore worthy of release since their intention was to target the PRC, not the US) as well as Uighur activists.

As far as I know, the PRC has not yet exercised its regional power prerogative to raid these camps; but the existence of camps and militants inside Pakistan and Afghanistan are the subject of frequent representations to Islamabad and Kabul by the Chinese government and its security services.

In the incident referenced by Mr. Roth, a group of PRC Uighurs (men, women, & children) were being returned to the PRC from Vietnam after entering illegally (the term of art here is “refoulement”, something that the Nepalese government is not supposed to do with Tibetan refugees); the men apparently seized some weapons from the Vietnamese border guard.  Two guards and five Uighur refugees were killed in the ensuing fracas.

This is unlikely to increase the enthusiasm of Vietnam for providing the refuge Roth is proposing.  Nor is the fact that the perpetrators of the knife attack that killed 27 in Kunming were apparently trying to exit the country thataway before they returned to Kunming for their rampage (the local PSB said they were trying to leave the country through Guangdong Province, which appears unlikely; they may have been trying to double back through Guangxi to Vietnam).

Given this context, and the continued acquiescence of the Obama administration to the “terrorist” designation for Uighur separatists (granted, apparently with some good reason, by President George W. Bush), it seems unlikely that any government will throw itself behind Mr. Roth’s proposal.

Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes about Asia for CounterPunch.  

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