China’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang is hardly raising a whimper from Islamic countries, especially in Southeast Asia
SINGAPORE — Just over a year ago the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests in Muslim-majority countries and drawing official condemnation at the United Nations.
An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Jakarta as Indonesian President Joko Widodo said his country “rejects” the American move as it “may disrupt the peace process in Israel and Palestine.” In late 2017, when US President Donald Trump announced he would live up to his campaign promise to move the embassy, the Malaysian government endorsed a huge protest at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Asia’s Muslim UN representatives lined up in New York to excoriate the US.
In contrast, the detention in mass camps of an estimated one million or more Muslims in Xinjiang in western China — described in late April by China’s foreign ministry as “preventive anti-terrorism and de-radicalization measures” that “respect and protect human rights and have won extensive support from people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang” — has prompted barely a murmur of complaint from Muslim-majority countries in Asia, much as China’s long-standing restrictions on Catholics and other Christians rarely incurs any protest from the Philippines
.”It is disappointing that Southeast Asian countries have been silent about the more than one million Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang that the Chinese government has kept in detention under political indoctrination,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament and board member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a non-governmental entity made up mostly of opposition lawmakers from the region — though Santiago is from Malaysia’s governing Democratic Action Party.
Indonesia and Malaysia are home to minorities of Chinese descent that have been influential in business but have suffered not only discrimination but bouts of deadly political violence. But since signing a free trade agreement with ASEAN a decade ago, China has surged ahead as the region’s biggest trade partner, though it still lags somewhat when it comes to investment. The 2018 ASEAN Investment Report showed that 8.2% of all FDI [foreign direct investment] into the region in 2017 came from Chinese businesses, less than Japan’s share.
Chinese investment is only likely to grow, however, as part of Beijing’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative, a vast infrastructure development blueprint that aims to link countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe with China, Most Southeast Asian countries need massive investments in infrastructure — Indonesia and the Philippines in particular, as both are scattered archipelagos lumbered with high transport costs.
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Indonesia’s newly-reelected President Widodo both met China’s president-for-life Xi Jinping over the last year – with Mahathir visiting China twice since his May 2018 election win – to discuss trade and investment, after Chinese projects ran into cost- and planning-related difficulties in both countries.
Despite all the haggling — raising as it does the possibility to negotiate over a range of issues — there has been scant indication that Beijing has been challenged over the razing of mosques and mass incarcerations in Xinjiang.
Indonesia and Malaysia are not alone, however, in their reluctance to antagonise China over the crisis. “To speak up for the the Uighur is to go against your economic national interests. This is particularly glaring in the case of Saudi Arabia, the source of much of the funding for the revival of Islam in Xinjiang in the 1990s. Many of the mosques now being torn down were built with Saudi money,” said Graeme Smith, a lecturer at the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University.
“Quite aside from the BRI, China is the major trading partner for most [Southeast Asian] nations, and Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to use economic coercion on smaller powers,” said Smith, who co-hosts The Little Red Podcast, a monthly discussion of Chinese politics and society.
Malaysia did stand up to China last year by refusing to extradite 11 Chinese Muslims who had escaped from China to Thailand to Malaysia. Later, in December, the Uighur issue later prompted a small protest at the Chinese embassy in Jakarta — led by some of the same anti-government Islamist groups that demonstrated in 2016 against the Protestant Chinese-descent governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was later jailed for 2 years for alleged blasphemy against Islam.
But responding to criticism by some of the country’s leading Islamic clerics over the issue, Indonesia’s outgoing vice-president Jusuf Kalla said Indonesia would not interfere in the internal affairs of another country, echoing ASEAN’s long-standing “non-interference” mantra.
China’s turn to undergo the UN’s human rights-focused Universal Periodic Review last November saw no more than implied concerns raised by Asia’s Muslim representatives, with Indonesia asking China to “continue to strengthen the development of laws and systems for protecting freedom of religion and beliefs.” Bangladesh sought that Beijing “continue to promote participation, integration and sharing of development benefits with the people in vulnerable situations, while Pakistan went so far as to back Beijing’s claims about counter-terrorism. Malaysia’s interventions were restricted to issues such as gender and mental health.
In contrast, several European and North American country representatives raised the issue of freedom of religion, specifically mentioning Xinjiang — comments which China brushed off as “politicized.”
“As Muslim-majority nations and members of the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Malaysia and Indonesia especially should express solidarity with fellow Muslims by condemning China for its treatment of the Uighurs,” Santiago said.Show