The recent arrest of an ethnic Uyghur suspected of plotting a suicide bombing in Indonesia underscores the possibility of Chinese Uyghurs’ engagement in terrorist attacks in the region. The presence of Uyghur refugees in Southeast Asia is changing the security dynamics of the region.
According to official intelligence estimation, a thousand Uyghur asylum seekers are scattered around various Muslim communities in the region. While China claims Uyghurs have travelled abroad to partake in terrorist acts, human rights activists argue they are fleeing from oppression from China. Uyghurs alleged to have been engaged in terrorist activities have repeatedly made headlines. The issues of Uyghurs add complexity to Southeast Asia’s security landscape.
China’s domestic conflict with ethnic Uyghurs sours ties
While China has accused Uyghurs of engaging in activities of separatism, extremism, and terrorism, Uyghurs claim they have long suffered from discrimination and repression that has limited their religion and culture. China has experienced several terrorist attacks over the last few years and the central government has attributed most of the incidents to Uyghur extremists. Conflicts between the Chinese government and ethnic Muslim Uyghurs have worsened ties between China and Muslim majority countries, and there have been protests, albeit small and rare, in Southeast Asian countries against China’s crackdown on Uyghur religious freedom.
Hosting countries’ dilemmas
Many countries have repatriated Uyghur refugees in varying degrees, under economic and diplomatic pressure from China. Cambodia sent back 20 Uyghurs in 2009; Malaysia deported 11 Uyghurs in 2011; Vietnam repatriated 21 Uyghurs in 2014; and Thailand repatriated 109 Uyghurs in 2015. Myanmar and Laos have also repatriated Uyghurs.
This repatriation of Uyghur refugees creates further tension, not only between Muslim majority states and China, but also between the refugees and their hosting countries. Muslims groups have staged protests, which have sometimes turned violent, against hosting countries for sending Uyghur refugees back to China. The August 2015 terrorist attack that killed at least 20 and injured more than 100 in Thailand is suspected to be a retaliation against Thailand’s repatriation of Uyghurs in July 2015. Hosting countries of Uyghurs face a dilemma of either upsetting China or accepting the risk of retaliatory attacks by Uyghur sympathisers.
Southeast Asia’s changing security landscape
A more serious security threat comes from the Uyghurs’ willingness to support Southeast Asian terrorist groups linked to the Islamic State and take part in attacks in the region. While the region has experienced an increasing level of supporters and fighters of the Islamic State compared to Al-Qaeda in the past, “the direct involvement of Uyghurs in Southeast Asian terrorism adds an external dimension to the existing home-grown terrorist threat”, Singapore political science expert Bilveer Singh argues.
Apart from the Thailand’s Erawan Shrine attack in August 2015, the recent arrest of an ethnic Uyghur suspect of plotting a suicide bombing in December outside of Bekasi, Indonesia is the latest sign that Chinese Uyghurs might have left China to take part in terrorist-related activities on foreign soil. Indonesia’s decision to work with China to investigate the case further confirms the possibility.
While a majority of Uyghur refugees are peaceful, the Islamic State’s ideology has very possibly gained traction among some Uyghur refugees. This, combined with growing support for the Islamic State in the region overall and the growing presence of militant Uyghurs in the region, adds further challenges to the Southeast Asia’s counter-terrorism efforts.