Thai authorities are looking for 20 Uyghurs who escaped from an immigration detention center near the Malaysian border before dawn on Monday by digging two holes and using blankets as ladders to escape, officials said.
The Uyghurs, who had been held for two years at the center in Sadao, a district of southern Songkhla province, escaped from their cells at about 2 a.m. and could have crossed into Malaysia, said police Capt. Surasak Siripan, the facility’s deputy director.
“There were 20 Uyghurs who managed to escape,” Surasak said. “Five others were intercepted before they could flee.”
Authorities searched with dogs through a rubber plantation where the detainees could have crossed to reach Malaysia, about a mile away from the detention center, he said.
“We could not find their footprints because it rained last night and the rain wiped off their footprints,” Surasak told reporters.
Without elaborating, he said the Uyghurs had “tried to escape once before” but authorities had recaptured them.
“This time around they were successful and walked toward Malaysia through a rubber plantation,” he said.
Chalida Tajaroensuk, director of the Thai civil society group People’s Empowerment, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that Uyghurs were believed to be in detention centers throughout Thailand.
“There were about 60 Uyghurs around various centers, but we do not know for sure because the authorities do not let us see them,” Chalida said following the escape.
Earlier, a high-ranking security source who requested anonymity told BenarNews that Thailand had been in an awkward position after Bangkok turned over 173 Uyghurs to Turkey on June 30, 2015. A week later, Thailand deported 109 Uyghurs to China.
“It is a hard position for us to either keep them or let them go somewhere,” said the source, referring to the Uyghurs at the Sadao immigration facility.
Human rights groups condemned Bangkok’s decision to deport the group to China, warning that the Uyghurs, who are Muslims, could face persecution and abuse.
China branded the deportees as “terrorists” and broadcast photos of them being flown back with hoods over their heads.
That forced repatriation may have precipitated a bomb blast in August 2015 that killed 20 people at the Erawan Shrine in Bangkok’s Rajprasong tourist district, according to security sources. Two Uyghur men, who were arrested by Thai authorities as suspects in that case, went on trial in late 2016.
Uyghurs flee to Thailand
Hundreds of Uyghurs who speak a Turkic language have passed through Thailand fleeing what they described as persecution in the Xinjiang region in China, where they are one of 55 officially recognized ethnic minorities. China has accused Uyghurs of involvement in attacks on ethnic Han Chinese.
Surasak said the 20 escapees were among a large group of Uyghurs who were detained in 2015 after they were found at the Tone Nga Chang waterfall in Songkhla.
The Uyghurs, who claimed they were Turkish and demanded that they be allowed to travel to Turkey, were kept at the detention center as authorities tried to verify their citizenship, officials said.
On Monday, a senior Islamic official expressed confidence that the escape would “bode well” for the Thai government.
The escape would help free Thailand of pressure from China to deport the Uyghurs, according to Wisut Binlateh, director of the coordination center for southern provinces of the Office of the Chularajmontri, Thailand’s Islamic spiritual leader.
Wisut told The Nation newspaper that the Uyghurs had tried to escape to join their wives and children. He said the minority Muslim community in Thailand had been calling on the Thai government to allow the Uyghurs to move to a third country, preferably Turkey.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.