It’s known by the evocative term “refoulement” — the returning of refugees to the country whence they have escaped to avoid persecution that can involve violence, torture imprisonment and even death. The decision by Thailand’s military junta to send 109 Uighurs (so far and counting) — a persecuted Muslim minority group from the Chinese province of Xinjiang — back to the welcoming arms of their Communist Party tormentors is an egregious, signal moment in the shifting allegiances of the country. It has been, and for so long, the main ally of the United States in mainland Southeast Asia. Yet this action is one more example of how politics in Asia is unintelligible without factoring in the significance of religion. The common frequently focus is on military, trade and national rivalries that culminate in decisive and dismaying actions. But increasingly religion tied to national identity is integral to the events. The sudden move by the Thai government to repatriate hundreds of Uighurs from refugee camps — along with the 109 to China, 180 have so far been sent to Turkey — is not just a sign of bending to Beijing’s wishes, as much as that appears to be true. It’s the latest visible example that religious fault lines and an emerging trend of religious nationalism is now beginning to appear right across the region. It is one that poses a fresh threat to the ambitions of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Economic Nations Community that will come into being on December 31, 2015.
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From a geopolitical viewpoint, the scorn heaped on Thailand by Western democracies, led by the U.S. for the military overthrow in May 2014 of a democratically elected government, has seen Bangkok warming to Chinese overtures. China offers the Thai military regime support in very specific ways that have some commentators and diplomats claiming that the U.S. has overplayed its hand. That concrete support from China comes with a no “human-rights-lectures-attached” checkbook that Beijing has been waving seductively under the eyes of the Thai prime minister, former army chief General Prayuth Chan-ocha. In Thailand the decision to send the Uighurs back is the country’s way of ingratiating itself with a Chinese government that sees the Muslim group as a threat to the easy and uncomplicated exploitation of the energy resources in Xinjiang, the province of China where historically they have been a majority. Uighurs are trapped by history far from their original homeland of Turkey. They are a population of about 9 million people in China whose ancestors were carried thousand of kilometers eastwards along the ancient Silk Road. The action of the Thai military government mirrors the earlier behavior of the government in neighboring Cambodia, another member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and a country that is firmly in China’s column. In 2009 Cambodia sent back 20 Uighurs under the cover of night even as refugee advocates were meeting in Phnom Penh in an attempt to halt the process. Again, Cambodia is an authoritarian regime led by a prime minister who just seems to have had the luck to win every election since 1986. He has had few friends in the West despite relying heavily on its aid that also comes from Japan and South Korea. Thailand is a Buddhist nation and the religion is at the very heart of the country’s culture and identity. Muslims have always been a problem, particularly in the country’s South. Travel south of Bangkok to the resort town of Krabi and the Muslim influence becomes apparent. And in the far South three Muslim provinces have been waging a separatist insurgency against the government that has so far seen more than 5,000 people killed, many of them children. Religious nationalism is even more apparent with Thailand’s neighbors. In Myanmar, radical Buddhists have helped trigger the region’s biggest refugee crisis since the Vietnam War. The Muslim Rohingya have fled Myanmar chasing work and a future only to be trapped in a virtual slave trade. People traffickers lock them up and have left them to die unless a bounty in excess of US$1,000 per head was paid. The Thai authorities turned a blind eye to the practice, leaving the Muslim minority to sink or swim. In Malaysia, the state sponsored pro-Malay policies have seen the country splinter along ethnic lines between the Muslim Malays and the Chinese and Indians that make up the other significant populations. That division has now been complicated by the threat Islamic State poses in Southeast Asia where its recruitment is underway in both Malaysia and Indonesia. The latter has the largest number of Muslims of any nation in the world — over 200 million. Already one imam on Central Java has aligned himself with IS. The Singaporeans, who are more alive to the shifting sands of the regime, are immensely concerned, diplomats say. In the Philippines, there has been a sectarian civil war on the southern island of Mindanao for decades. It has led to the proposed creation of a special Muslim state. In Brunei, sharia law has been promulgated. In India, the Christian and Muslim religious minorities are watching with apprehension how the country’s Hindu Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his followers move. Modi was raised as a Hindu fundamentalist and has a patchy track record in his home state of Gujarat. Religious intolerance is on the rise in Asia and the whiff of religious nationalism, an even more potent combination as places like Torquemada’s Spain and the Ayatollahs’ Iran have shown us, is in the air. No good can come of this. Michael Sainsbury is a Bangkok-based journalist and commentator.