Beyond the South China Sea disputes currently bothering the region, Southeast Asia is facing an evolving security challenge emanating from the growing presence of Uyghur militants.
On 24 December 2015, the Indonesian main anti-terrorism police unit, Densus 88, raided a safehouse in Bekasi, West Java, located at the eastern outskirt of Jakarta. The raid resulted in the arrest of an Uyghur militant identified only as Alli.
According to Indonesian Police Chief Badrodin Haiti, Alli was being trained in Indonesia to be a suicide bomber. Alli was the 11th personality arrested by Densus 88 for plotting terrorist activities in the country. Alli has been associated with Indonesian terrorist personalities who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He is also being investigated for his involvement in the Erawan Shrine bombing in Bangkok in August 2015.
Alli is a 35-year old Uyghur, one of the 55 ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Chinese government. Uyghur communities are mostly Turkic ethnic Muslims who live predominantly in Xinjiang, a restive province of the People’s Republic of China in the Northwest. Because of the presence of some Uyghur separatist groups, the Chinese government granted the province an autonomous status through the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
But some Uyghur organizations are not satisfied with autonomy as they aspire for complete separation from the Chinese government controlled by the Han ethnic majority. The most violent Uyghur group, the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), has been involved in various terrorist activities in China. Thus, ETIM is listed by the United States as one of the Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs).
It is not yet clear if Alli is a member of ETIM. But initial investigation by Densus 88 indicated that Alli was a follower of Abu Muzad, a Uyghur separatist leader operating in Indonesia. Densus 88 also arrested Muzad in Bekasi on December 22, 2015. The arrest of Muzad led to the arrest of Alli two days after.
Indonesian authorities have accused Alli of being part of the ISIS-linked terrorist cell in Indonesia being led by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian ex-convict accused of various crimes associated with terrorism. An intelligence briefing from Densus 88 revealed that Naim went to Syria to fight with ISIS, an international terrorist group that claims to have 300 Uyghurs fighters both in Iraq and Syria. Naim encouraged Alli to become a Shayeed by carrying out a suicide mission.
Alli reached Indonesia via Batam, an island close to a neighboring state of Singapore. From Xinjiang, Alli went first to Thailand and Malaysia before reaching Indonesia along with two other Uyghur militants who are still at large.
The arrest of Alli may be considered an outcome of Uyghur diaspora in Southeast Asia.
Based on official intelligence estimates, a thousand Uyghur refugees are seeking asylum in various Muslim communities in Southeast Asia. Thailand already deported 109 Uyghurs to China but still more than a hundred Uyghur refugees remain in the country. Malaysia is also facing the problem of around 200 Uyghur asylum seekers who are said to be reaching 400 based on unconfirmed sources.
Indonesia is also worried about the influx of Uyghur refugees whose numbers are estimated between 150 to 300. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have suffered the entry of Uyghur refugees but their numbers cannot be exactly determined. In 2014, the Philippines deported to Turkey 5 Uyghur personalities for violation of Philippine immigration laws. Brunei remains quiet on the issue of Uyghur refugees in the region.
There is an Uyghur diaspora in Southeast Asia because of China’ s strong policy against Uyghurs engaged in violence and terrorism. Though the vast majority of the Uyghurs remain peaceful, there are some ETIM-associated individuals who are engaged in various acts of terrorism in China, particularly in Xinjiang province. The Chinese government is pursuing a hammer approach against ETIM because of its members’ alleged involvement in separatism, extremism and terrorism. China’s decisive crackdown against ETIM members has affected some Uyghur communities in Xinjiang encouraging some Uyghurs, particularly those who felt being discriminated against, to flee and seek asylum in other countries.
China’s new anti-terror law
On December 28, 2015, the Chinese government enacted a new anti-terrorism law, which declares terrorism “public enemy of mankind.” This law empowers already existing anti-terrorism institutions in China to counter personalities engaged in separatism, extremism and terrorism.
An Weixing, chief of the counter-terrorism division of the Ministry of Public Security, said that China’s new anti-terrorism law is required as the country faces a serious threat from terrorists, especially from "East Turkestan" forces. But human rights observers worldwide express worries that China can use this law to further oppress the Uyghurs. There is also fear that China’s new anti-terrorism law can exacerbate the problem of Uyghur Diaspora in Southeast Asia that can unleash various security challenges.
Should the Philippines be worried?
There are reasons to be cautious.
First, the arrest of 5 Uyghur personalities in Manila on June 21, 2014 indicated Uyghur presence in the country. These 5 ethnic Uyghurs reached the Philippines using fake Turkish passports. Before reaching Manila, they went to Basilan from Sabah to meet personalities linked with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). They also visited Cotabato City where they met personalities associated with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF). They also visited Davao City where they met personalities involved in militant activities.
Second, social media postings of some young Abu Sayyaf personalities have expressed sympathy with the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. Their exchange of views via social media can result in cross-pollination of extremist ideas leading to violence and terrorism. If not abated, cross-pollination of extremist ideas between the Moros of Mindanao and Uyghurs of Xinjiang can pose security threats to the Philippines and China.
Third, Al Hayat Media Center of ISIS has released a video showing a chant in Mandarin entitled “Mujahid.” This video, intended to agitate the Uyghurs in China, has already reached followers in Mindanao, particularly those associated with the ASG, BIFF, Ansar Khilafah Philippines (AKP), and Khilafah Islamiyah Mindanao (KIM).
If neglected, the emerging Uyghur militancy in Southeast Asia can adversely affect the Philippines because of existing grievances of Muslims in Mindanao. The presence of some foreign terrorists in Mindanao can facilitate the entry of Uyghur militants who find Mindanao as an option to carry their missions, particularly in the context of China’s new anti-terrorism law.
Having said this, the Philippines and China should start talking together to find common ground to cooperate to counter the virulent threats of terrorism that they currently face. – Rappler.com
Dr. Rommel C. Banlaoi teaches at the Department of International Studies in Miriam College. He is the Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR) and Director of its Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS).