PHNOM PENH—China has tightened its southeastern border after several groups of ethnic Uyghurs managed to bribe their way into Vietnam and then Cambodia to avoid possible detention for allegedly taking part in deadly ethnic riots in July, Uyghur sources in Asia say.
The sources, who asked not be to named, said Chinese authorities have detained 31 Uyghurs since Sept. 15 in the southern cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou and in the central city of Kunming, either for trying to flee the country or for allegedly aiding others in fleeing China.
Twenty-two Uyghurs—a predominantly Muslim minority concentrated in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)—have sought protection from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, the sources said.
This group, which includes two young children, paid people to smuggle them across the border from Vietnam into Cambodia, they said.
In addition to the 22 Uyghurs in Cambodia, two Uyghur men were detained in Vietnam as of Oct. 15, after police nabbed them as they tried to cross into Cambodia from Vietnam. Five more Uyghurs remain unaccounted for after they tried to leave China for Vietnam on Oct. 15, the Uyghur sources said.
The UNHCR has no offices in Vietnam, so anyone seeking asylum as a refugee must find a way into Cambodia, where it does operate. Whether the 22 Uyghur asylum-seekers would be permitted to remain in Cambodia was unclear.
UNHCR and Cambodian officials in Phnom Penh declined to comment on the case.
Ethnic clashes described
In statements to the UNHCR in Phnom Penh and seen by RFA’s Uyghur service, two of the asylum-seekers described witnessing the deadly ethnic clashes between Uyghurs and majority Han Chinese in July 2009.
As the clashes wore on, one of the men wrote, “all of the Uyghur protesters were … surrounded by military police … handcuffed … and beaten … with clubs and their guns. The protesters seemed barely alive,” Mutellip Mamut said in his statement.
“The arrested Uyghurs were then thrown into the trucks like they were sacks of rice. Some protesters were also shot dead,” he wrote.
“If I am returned to China I am sure that I will be sentenced to life imprisonment or the death penalty for my involvement in the Urumqi riots, having taken photographs and video footage of the riots and providing this footage to a foreign news reporter.”
Another Uyghur petitioner for asylum described learning of mass detentions of Uyghur males in the wake of the rioting.
A neighbor told him on July 10, Islam Urayim wrote, “that her husband Abdurahman had been arrested by the police as well as two other friends of ours.”
“One of my friends, Mahmut, used to live near where the demonstration took place, and another, Kurban, lived about 300 meters (yards) from my home. She told me every Uyghur male over 16 living in the area had been arrested,” he wrote to the UNHCR.
“After July 5, there were only two options for me—to risk arrest or escape to another country. I weighed both risks,” Mamut said in an interview.
“If I were detained, I would be executed or die in prison. If I escaped, I might be arrested at the border or sent back to China. Then my ‘crime’ would be worse, and I would surely be executed.”
“I felt that the second option was more secure—so I took the risk of escaping. I don’t know what my fate will be,” Mamut said.
Urayim said separately that he feared living abroad but wanted to tell the world what he witnessed during the July clashes.
“Living abroad is a terrifying thing for me, but I have no choice,” Urayim said.
“The Chinese government is trying to portray the July 5 incident as consisting of assaults, vandalism, looting, and burning—they’re hiding the fact that it started as a demonstration and the demonstrators were holding the Chinese flag,” he said.
“They’re hiding the fact that the police shot at demonstrators, that Uyghurs were killed, and they’re showing only Chinese fatalities to the world. I fled the country so I could do my part in revealing the facts about July 5.”
In addition to Mamut, who was born on July 10, 1980, and Islam Urayim, born July 16, 1980, only two other asylum-seekers agreed to be named. They are Hazirti ali Umar, born June 7, 1990, and Aikebaierjiang Tuniyazi, born Feb. 13, 1982.
Clashes first erupted between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs on July 5, and at least 200 people were killed, by the government’s tally.
Twelve people have since been sentenced to death in connection with the violence.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said it has documented the disappearances of 43 men and boys in the Xinjiang region, but that the actual number of disappearances is likely far higher.
Police have meanwhile detained more than 700 people in connection with the unrest, according to earlier state news reports.
Uyghurs, a distinct and mostly Muslim ethnic group, have long complained of religious, political, and cultural oppression by Chinese authorities, and tensions have simmered in the Xinjiang region for years.
Original reporting by Shohret Hoshur for RFA's Uyghur service. Service director: Dolkun Kamberi. Additional reporting by RFA's Khmer service. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Written and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.