Vietnam border soldiers hand over bodies to Chinese authorities. Pic: Thành Duy.

Violence erupted on Vietnam’s border with China last week when five Chinese civilians and two Vietnamese border guards were killed.

The episode occurred at the Bac Phong Sinh border crossing in the country’s northern Quang Ninh Province, along the border of China’s Guangxi Province.

The Chinese citizens were caught attempting to enter Vietnam illegally and were in the process of being deported back to China by Vietnamese border guards.

The violence began when some of the 16 detainees being deported grabbed Ak-47 rifles from their Vietnamese guards and began firing at their captors. The detainee group was made up of ten men, four women, and two children.

According to Vietnamese government reports, hundreds of Vietnamese border guards and police officers responded to the incident and surrounded the building that had been taken over by the Chinese.

The Chinese were urged to surrender, however, this did not prevent the death of many in the group.  Some of the Chinese chose to commit suicide, by jumping off the roof of the building, rather than surrender.  Others were killed during the Vietnamese forces operation to retake the building.

Perhaps explaining the Chinese group’s reluctance to return to China, the members of the group have now been identified as being Muslim, possibly being Uighurs and hailing from Xinjiang province in China

Known officially as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, Xinjiang province is located in northwest China. The majority of the Uighurs in this region live in the Tarim Basin.  While still a minority in China, there are over 10 million Uighurs living in the country.

There has been increasing unrest recently between China’s majority Han population and the minority Uighur group.  The Uighurs complain of harassment from the Hans and of harsh government crackdowns.

However, in China there have also been some high-profile attacks perpetrated by persons of Uighur ethnicity.  These include an apparent suicide attack by a carload of Uighurs in the area of Tiananmen Square, nearby the Forbidden City in Beijing. An additional incident occurred in Kunming where over 140 people were injured and 29 were killed by knife-wielding extremists.

As tensions continue to swirl around the country, growing numbers of Chinese Uighurs have been filtering, usually illegally, into the neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

Besides Vietnam, Thailand has also seen the number of illegal Uighur immigrants rise.  The largest group of Uighurs caught by Thai border guards numbered over 400.

Many of the Uighurs caught leaving China say that they are travelling to Turkey – the Uighurs speak a version of the Turkish language.

Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch have called on countries such as Vietnam and Thailand to refrain from returning the Uighurs to China in fear of the treatment that they might be subjected to.

China and Vietnam have a history of border disputes dating back to the short border war occurring in 1979. This tension continues around the dispute over the South China Sea.  It is not yet clear whether the Chinese authorities will issue an official complaint to Vietnam over the treatment of the Chinese Uighurs in this recent incident.