Tough task to stem flow of Uighurs to S-E Asia

BEIJING • Poor intelligence and porous borders with South-east Asia are stymieing China's efforts to stop the flow of ethnic minority Uighur Muslims heading to Turkey, where Beijing says many of them end up fighting for extremists in Syria and Iraq.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape strife in their far western Chinese homeland of Xinjiang have travelled clandestinely via South-east Asia to Turkey. Speaking to Reuters, Mr Tong Bishan, a senior police officer who has been helping to lead China's efforts to get the Uighurs back, said the Uighurs were mostly crossing into Vietnam and Laos.

In rare public comment on such a sensitive issue and on the difficulty facing the authorities, Mr Tong said he believes the numbers getting out have fallen considerably but it is not possible to stop them completely. "In some places, the border is a little stream, two or three metres wide. Jump over and on the other side, it is Vietnam. There is no fence or anything," he said.

One Beijing-based diplomatic source said China has been successful in stopping Uighurs from crossing into Central Asia via Kyrgyzstan, after the country responded to China's request to step up security, and that has led to them trying to leave via South-east Asia. Still, even as security at transport hubs in Xinjiang has increased, Uighurs are Chinese citizens and have the right to travel anywhere in the country.

Mr Tong said Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language, are using that right to get to border areas. His remarks underscore the intelligence challenge China faces in Xinjiang, where government officials generally do not speak the language and many Uighurs harbour an intense suspicion of the state. The issue is particularly acute when it comes to China working out exactly how many have ended up in Syria or Iraq fighting for Islamist militants.

Meanwhile, reports from Shenyang, in Liaoning province, yesterday said police killed three knife-wielding "terrorists" from Xinjiang. The authorities said a fourth assailant, described as a 28-year-old woman, was injured.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 14, 2015, with the headline 'Tough task to stem flow of Uighurs to S-E Asia'. Subscribe