BANGKOK • Thailand's Prime Minister defended a decision to forcibly return nearly 100 Uighur Muslim migrants to China despite rights groups' concerns that they could face ill-treatment upon their return.
He said if they encountered any problems, it was not Bangkok's fault.
"If we send them (the Uighurs) back and there is a problem, that is not our fault," said Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, the general who led a coup against an elected government last May.
The Thai PM also held out the possibility of shutting the Thai embassy in Turkey after protesters attacked the honorary consulate in Istanbul, smashing windows and ransacking parts of the building, over the expulsion of the Uighurs back to China.
China's treatment of its Turkic language-speaking Uighur minority is a sensitive issue in Turkey and has strained bilateral ties ahead of a planned visit to Beijing this month by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Many Turks see themselves as sharing a common cultural and religious heritage with their Uighur "brothers" and Turkey is home to a large Uighur diaspora.
"I ask that we look after the safety of the embassy staff first," Mr Prayut told reporters. "But if the situation gets worse then we might temporarily have to close the embassy in Turkey."
Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape the unrest have travelled clandestinely via South-east Asia to Turkey. China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs.
"Thailand sent around 100 Uighurs back to China yesterday. Thailand has worked with China and Turkey to solve the Uighur Muslim problem. We have sent them back to China after verifying their nationality," Colonel Weerachon Sukhondhapatipak, deputy government spokesman, told reporters yesterday.
A group of more than 170 Uighurs were identified as Turkish citizens and sent to Turkey, and nearly 100 were identified as Chinese and sent back to China. Fifty others still need to have their citizenship verified.
Beijing denies restricting the Uighurs' religious freedoms and blames Islamist militants for a rise in violent attacks in its western Xinjiang region in the past three years in which hundreds have died.