As terrorist attacks continue to escalate security concerns in European countries absorbing Muslim refugees, it is tempting to conclude that terrorism is an export of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. With 78% of total fatalities from terrorist attacks being in just five countries in the greater MENA region, we are often shocked when there is a “leak” of terror-induced violence that reaches an outside region. To transcend this fixation on the MENA region’s “terror relationship” to the West, we can turn our eye to a different part of the world to understand that terrorism is, in fact, both produced and used outside of this region. Similar to how recent terror attacks in Europe are often attributed to xenophobia and mistreatment of Muslim refugees from Syria, a similar phenomenon is occurring in Thailand.
Specifically, the August 2015 Bangkok bombing at the Hindu Erawan Shine–a popular tourist destination–killed 20 people and injured at least 120 more, with the majority of victims being Chinese tourists. This case serves is similar to what we have seen in Europe, as the attack was attributed to Muslim refugee mistreatment and perceived xenophobia. Was this a typical act of terrorism leaking out of the MENA region? Not exactly. While the attacks in Europe and the greater MENA region are often instigated by ISIL, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram, and Hezbollah, the perpetrators in Thailand’s bombing were of Uighur descent. To further comprehend the events leading up to this anomaly, we must explore the Uighur’s political history, and then focuses on the deteriorating Thai-Uighur relationship that incited the terrorist strike.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are a Muslim, Turkic ethnic minority inhabiting China’s western Xinjiang region. The Xinjiang region was only brought under Beijing’s control in its entirety during the 19th century Qing dynasty reign, and the group continues to have an uncomfortable relationship with the capital. In 1933, amid the turbulence of China’s civil wars, Uighur leaders in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar declared the short-lived independent Republic of East Turkestan. But Xinjiang was wholly subsumed into the new state forged by China’s victorious Communists after 1949, with Beijing steadily tightening its grip on the oil rich territory. In the 1990s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia. However, Beijing suppressed demonstrations and activists went underground. Conflict and resentment have arisen as increasing numbers of Han Chinese are migrating to major Uighur cities in the Xinjiang region. The Han Chinese are said to be given the best jobs and the majority economically out-perform Uighurs.
In June 2009, simmering ethnic tensions erupted in the streets of Urumqi, where Uighur and Han Chinese clashed, resulted in one of the bloodiest outbreaks in Xinjiang since 1949. Since then, the Chinese government has followed a “strong arm” policy of rooting out Uighur protests and potential terror attacks within their borders. Given this background, where does the Thai Kingdom play a role? Due to ethnic conflict in China, Uighurs are trying to flee to Islamic nations such as Turkey and Malaysia. Thailand is the gateway between China and Malaysia, making it a popular “pass through” nation for Uighurs seeking asylum.
The Thai-Uighur Dilemma
The dilemma that Thailand faces is whether or not to deport these (technically illegal) Uighur refugees that are passing through. With violence in the Xinjiang region, Beijing is keen on prosecuting any Uighurs affiliated with violent acts or protests. With Beijing at Thailand’s backdoor, there is mounting pressure on Bangkok to return the illegal migrants for proper prosecution. To make this dilemma worse, Thailand already faces problems with daily violence from their own Muslim minority in the southern provinces of Yala, Pattani, Narathiwat, and Songkhla. The fear is that exporting or reprimanding these Uighur migrants could incite these Muslim separatist groups on the Malaysian border to escalate violence in Thailand. While this conceptual deterrence kept Thailand from actively deporting Chinese illegal immigrants since 2009, the May 2014 Thai Coup d’état altered this situation. Following the coup, the crippled Thai economy became increasingly reliant on tourism and exports. Seeing as the Chinese are both the largest provider of Thailand’s tourists and the largest importer of Thai goods, the newly instilled Thai military regime was subject to increased strong-arming from Beijing.
The Tai Migrant Crisis
Facing pressures of trade interdependence, Thai officials decided to detain 300 Uighurs and deport 100 back into the hands of Chinese prosecutors in July 2015. As expected, this sparked worldwide protests and small attacks on Thai consulates in the Muslim world; the UN released a statement scolding Thailand’s “flagrant abuse of human rights.” A month later, an Uighur bomb exploded at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok, killing and injuring primarily Chinese tourists. Given this situation, it is evident that the deterrent use of violence was upheld in Thailand, triggering a punishment-based strategy to compel Thai officials to permit safe passage to illegal Uighur migrants. Therefore, we can see how the bombing in Bangkok was no random act of terror. It was a direct response to mistreatment of a displaced Muslim refugee group. While on the other side of the world and initiated by an entirely different group, Thailand’s experience with terrorism reflects what we’ve recently seen in Europe. The Thai bombing highlights the role that refugee treatment and xenophobia play in terrorism outside the MENA region. It is clear that terror-based tactics act as a deterrent strategy to ensure positive treatment of Muslim refugees fleeing oppression. As the number of Muslim refugees continues to climb, it is up to policymakers to consider whether or not this threat is credible while formulating refugee policies.