BANGKOK -Â One night last month, outside the gates of the United Nations headquarters in Bangkok, Liu Xuehong stood weeping, begging the guards to let her in.
The Chinese dissident had received a threatening call from an anonymous Chinese official, and feared that she, like other asylum seekers in Thailand, would be snatched away by agents of China or deported by a Thai junta increasingly allied to it.
The U.N. guards refused her entry. “I felt so frustrated,” she said, tears streaming down her face. “We still live in fear here.”
Liu is one of hundreds of Chinese who have fled for Thailand, say human rights groups. It was long considered a refuge, but not anymore.
Two Chinese dissidents recently disappeared from Thai soil, only to reappear a few weeks later in China in police custody. Thailand deported two others late last year despite a U.N. plan to resettle them in Canada.
“Thailand is no longer a safe haven for Chinese dissidents,” said a senior Western diplomatic source based in Beijing.
Western governments have expressed concern over China’s apparent extra-territorial reach, as President Xi Jinping intensifies a nationwide crackdown on human rights lawyers, journalists and labor activists.
China considers many dissidents to be criminals, including those who flee abroad.
HONG KONG BOOKSELLER
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a top Thai government advisor, said police were “still checking” how the two Chinese dissidents had vanished from the country, and said it was possible one of them had “disappeared (by) himself.”
As for the two deportations of Chinese refugees in November, Panitan said the Thai government would work more closely with the UNHCR “to prevent this kind of problem”. He said China had not applied any pressure.
“Thailand decides on its own,” he said.
Among those who disappeared in Thailand was Gui Minhai, one of five Hong Kong booksellers who have gone missing since late last year.
China’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the disappearances, but has said its law enforcement officials would never do anything illegal, especially overseas. It said the November deportations were handled “in accordance with the law”.
The Thai junta’s seizure of power in 2014 strained ties with the West. As the United States and other countries downgraded political and military ties, the generals forged closer ties with Beijing.
China and Thailand held their first joint air force exercise in November. The following month, the two countries agreed to build a $13 billion railway line from the Thai-Lao border to Bangkok.
A record 7.9 million Chinese visited Thailand last year, or more than a quarter of the total number of tourists. Last July, Thailand’s deported 109 Uighur Muslims to an uncertain fate in China in what the U.N. called “a flagrant violation of international law.”
FLUSHING OUT DISSIDENTS
Dissidents like Liu say the disappearances and deportations are part of a diplomatic and security squeeze by China to flush them out. Aiding them in Thailand, she believes, are Chinese agents posing as asylum-seekers.
Liu, 55, was jailed for a month in Beijing in 2014 for “disturbing social order,” a catch-all charge often used to suppress human rights activists. But she continued her work until last June, just weeks before the Chinese authorities began arresting hundreds of lawyers, legal assistants and activists in a nationwide crackdown.
“Almost all the people around me in China have been arrested,” she said.
Liu flew to Thailand, where she is now a U.N.-registered refugee awaiting resettlement. She can still be arrested and deported for illegally entering Thailand, which officially doesn’t recognize refugee status.
Men in cars often follow her through Bangkok, she says. “We have no protection here,” said Liu.
Liu arrived in Thailand by plane. But other Chinese, too fearful to use their passports, travel overland through ill-policed borders from neighboring countries with the help of human smugglers.
Song Zhiyu, 43, from Hebei Province, is a member of Falun Gong, a religious group banned as a cult in China.
He left China on a smuggler’s motorbike until reaching the Myanmar town of Mongla. In Mongla, Song telephoned a Thai man known only as “the tour leader” who, in return for 20,000 yuan ($3,000), drove him towards the Thai border.
Then Song was spirited across a river into Thailand and hidden in the luggage hold of a Bangkok-bound bus. He spent the next 10 hours bent double. “I thought I would die,” he said.
About 160 Falun Gong refugees and asylum-seekers are in Thailand, Song said, and in the past, authorities had rarely bothered them.
But more than 29 practitioners have been arrested on immigration charges under the military junta, he said.
“The Thai and Chinese governments now have a very close relationship,” he said. “We are all afraid. Every day is dangerous for us.”
By Andrew R.C. Marshall – Reuters
(Additional reporting by James Pomfret in Hong Kong. Editing by Aubrey Belford and William Tarrant)