Vietnamese authorities arrested 21 illegal migrants from China on the same day as a gunfight between border guards and another group of Chinese nationals—whom experts have speculated could be Uyghurs—killed seven people, according to Vietnamese media.
The 21 were detained by border guards from the coastal Tra Co border station in northeastern Vietnam’s Quang Ninh province, Thanh Nien News reported Sunday.
The border guards made the arrest after being alerted by their Chinese counterparts that the group was trying to enter Vietnam by sea, according to the report.
The news of the group’s arrest follows a shootout between border guards and members of a group of 16 Chinese nationals caught trying to cross into Quang Ninh over land from China’s Guangxi province.
Two Vietnamese border guards and five of the Chinese nationals were killed in the gun battle, which broke out at the Bac Phong Sinh border gate after at least one of the male migrants took an AK-47 rifle from a Vietnamese officer and opened fire, according to reports from state media.
Based on photos released by Vietnamese state media showing some of the women survivors in headscarves often worn by Muslims, experts have speculated that the migrants could have been members of China’s mostly Muslim ethnic Uyghur minority from the northwestern Xinjiang region.
Rights groups say that in recent years there has been a rapid flight of Uyghurs from Xinjiang due to ethnic discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression in the troubled region.
An anonymous source at the Tra Co border station told a Vietnamese newspaper they suspect the two groups of detainees have some connection, according to Thanh Nien News.
Vietnamese media reported earlier that the 11 survivors of the first group were deported to China, but it remained unclear Monday whether the same had happened to the group of 21.
Vietnam’s neighbors Thailand, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia have deported Uyghur migrants fleeing what rights groups have called persecution at home. Some of the deportees have been sentenced to life imprisonment on reaching China.
In Vietnam, where territorial tensions with China have simmered in recent years, some members of the public and politicians have questioned why authorities handed over the 11 survivors from the first group to China without further investigating them first.
“It happened on Vietnam’s soil, so Vietnam should handle the case first,” former National Assembly delegate Nguyen Minh Thuyet said.
“They can only return the bodies back to China after postmortem procedures are carried out, and the other people who are still alive need to be dealt with according to Vietnamese law.”
“We just can’t just return them so hurriedly like that,” he said.
Carl Thayer, a Vietnam scholar from Australia, told RFA that if any of the detainees were Uyghurs, "they were probably using Vietnam to move on to somewhere else."
Uyghurs in Thailand
Meanwhile in Thailand, a group of 14 ethnic minority Uyghurs fleeing China were arrested on Saturday in Sa Keo province after Cambodian smugglers deserted them the day before, local media reported.
The detention of the group, which included six children, follows that of several groups of Uyghur asylum-seekers who fled to Thailand in recent months.
Rights groups have called on Bangkok not to turn the asylum-seekers over to China for fear they could face punishment.
In March, 112 people were detained in Sa Keo province and taken to the central immigration detention center in the capital Bangkok.
Earlier in the month, Thai police detained 213 Uyghurs, including 80 children, hiding in a camp in a rubber plantation in Ratapoom district in southern Songkhla province near the border with Malaysia.
Reported by Mac Lam for RFA’s Vietnamese Service. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.