By now, the scale of the crisis is clear. There are up to 3 million Turkic Muslims – primarily Uyghurs but also ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz – in a vast network of concentration camps in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. The result is the 21st century’s greatest human rights crisis: Empty Uyghur neighborhoods. Students, musicians, athletes, and peaceful academics jailed. “Graduates” of these camps are being put into forced labor factories, churning out goods that are even reaching the United States.
It’s clear that what began as a movement to clamp down on terrorism has become an attempt to eradicate an entire ethnic group and their religion – Islam, which is being seen as a mental illness and incompatible with Chinese-style socialism. Yet, so far, the world’s reaction has been muted – including in the Islamic world, in the same countries where, in the past years, there have been widespread protests and public statements in support of the human rights of Palestinian and Rohingya Muslims.
“I don’t know what they are waiting for,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, DC. “All the evidence shows that a crime against humanity is being committed by the Chinese government in East Turkestan,” he added, using the Uyghur’s preferred name for Xinjiang.
While many are looking toward the Middle East, Turkey, or China’s neighboring Muslim-majority nations of Pakistan and Kazakhstan as possible leaders, the best hope for pressure from the Islamic world may come from an unlikely place: Southeast Asia, namely, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Why Southeast Asia
They key factor is that, even though Southeast Asia’s two Muslim-majority countries have limited historical, cultural, or linguistic ties to the Uyghurs, they are both democracies that are responsive to public pressure, unlike most other Muslim majority nations. They also have a freer press that has allowed for more coverage of what’s happening in China – and that coverage is, slowly, increasing.
“In mainstream Indonesian press since mid-December or so, when it became a topic of debate in Parliament, there has been more coverage,” said Aaron Connelly, research fellow for Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “And Malaysians have been reading about what has been going on Xinjiang even more frequently than Indonesians.”
In fact, in both countries, there are early signs that the Uyghur issue is gaining traction. Malaysia has been standing up to China more and more, canceling several joint projects since the Pakatan Harapan coalition took power earlier this year. This might soon translate to human rights issues. A telling moment came earlier this year, when likely future Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke publicly in support of Uyghurs, making him one of the first Muslim political leaders anywhere in the world to do so. The government even followed up rhetoric with action, letting a groups of Uyghur asylum seekers go to Turkey rather than be deported to China, despite the latter’s protests, and reversing the policy of the previous government.
“We took a strong stand on human rights, and it says a lot about our new government,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, the director of the Malaysian nongovernmental organization Islamic Renaissance Front. “There was no valid reason for us to deport the asylum seekers back to China, because if we sent them to China, we are sending them the gallows.”
Neighboring Indonesia, the world most populous Muslim country, is seeing early signs that the Uyghur issue may play a role in the coming election, due for this coming April. One Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a member of the opposition coalition, has already called on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to speak out. And earlier in January, Indonesia’s powerful Ulema Council became one of the first such entities in the Islamic world to condemn the oppression of the Uyghurs.
The challenge for Indonesia is that 2019 is an election year, and there is strong evidence that the emergence of the Uyghur issue is connected more to domestic politics than genuine human rights concerns. Many noted the presence of notorious right-wing Islamist organizations, including the Islamic Defenders Front, at pro-Uyghur rallies that took place last December in several Indonesia cities. One of the organizers, Slamet Ma’arif, became well known when, in 2016 and 2017, he helped lead mass mobilizations against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was ethnically Chinese and Christian, using racist and religiously tinged rhetoric.
This bring up another concern – that the Uyghur issue could play into domestic racial politics and lead to the conflation of Chinese and Chinese-Indonesian.
“If you’re pluralist, but Javanese Muslim like Jokowi you’re going to worry that your country is not mature enough to distinguish between Beijing and Chinese Indonesians, and that if you push and things become tense between Indonesia and Beijing, then things are going to become difficult for Chinese-Indonesians,” said Connelly.
Add in Indonesia’s notorious quietness on the global stage, and you have a country that is not likely to lead unless protests rise to the level that Jokowi can no longer ignore them without risking his political future.
“There’s no courage in Indonesian diplomacy at the moment… it likes to be seen as constructive and nonconfrontational,” said Connelly. “It’s very unlikely that Indonesia try to play a constructive role.”
That’s why action from Malaysia is more promising, due several factors; to its more favorable domestic situation – the ruling coalition is being led by caretaker Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is not concerned about future elections – and, crucially, its position in the Muslim world. Unlike officially secular Indonesia, Malaysia is officially an Islamic country and has a history of leadership in organizations like the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).
The OIC is key venue that Uyghur activists and human rights advocates believe could help bring the Uyghur cause to attention in the Muslim world. In the past, the OIC has spoken out on issues of human rights in Palestine, Yemen, and even convened a meeting on the Rohingya crisis. But it has remained mostly silent on the Uyghurs since 2009. A statement or collective action from the body, which counts 57 member nations, could help bring what happening to Xinjiang to the forefront of the entire Muslim world.
There was a tantalizing glimpse of what an OIC response could look like in late January, when OIC Secretary-General Yousef Al-Othaimeen told a meeting of senior level officials that the organization “followed closely the reports on the status of Uyghur Muslims and I discussed the issue with Chinese officials.” Al-Othaimeen added that an OIC delegation “would visit to see the situation on the ground in the coming days.” That means the issue, in some form, is likely to be on the agenda at the next OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, scheduled for March 1 to 2 in the UAE. And on that front, Malaysia could be soon ready to act.
“Malaysia has a different view of its relationship with the Islamic world than Indonesia,” said Connelly. “I would be less surprised to see Malaysia go to the OIC than Indonesia, as it’s more consistent with how Malaysia has displayed its diplomacy and taken a harder line on Islamic world issues.”
Moreover, the Malaysian government has more political cover domestically due the fact that the ruling coalition has a strong representation of Chinese-Malaysians through the Democratic Action Party, the largest party in Pakatan Harapan.
“I think that gives them a little more license to push back on China,” said Connelly, noting that it was the ethnically Chinese finance minister who canceled the Chinese infrastructure projects.
What will be needed is more public pressure, believes Farouk.
“The pressure must come from civil society,” he said. His organization is working with other human rights groups to organize a seminar and they hope to have the prime minister or other high-level officials participate.
Even a Small Move Could Have a Big Impact
In the bigger picture, if either Indonesia or Malaysia begins to speak up on the Uyghur issue alongside Western countries, it could be the tipping point that forces China to change its policies. The response from the Chinese government and media so far is to paint news stories as a Western conspiracy, aimed at hurting the country’s economy. It would be harder to take that position if countries that Beijing sees as key partners and central to its massive Belt and Road Initiative begin to ask questions.
“I think that Indonesian and Malaysian pressure could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and forces China to reduce the amount of pressure,” said Connelly. While he is doubtful that this could lead to an ideal situation for Uyghurs, it could result in less Uyghurs in the camps and more access to the region.
What will likely drive this is not leaders like Jokowi, Mahathir, or Anwar becoming suddenly inspired. It will be because Indonesians and Malaysians demand it. In Indonesia, that means watching to see if the Uyghurs become a campaign issue and whether the opposition pushes Jokowi to take more concrete action. In Malaysia, the question will be how effective civil society and media pressure is, and just how far Mahathir and Anwar want to take their role as leaders in the Islamic world.
Meanwhile, for the millions of Uyghurs toiling away in anonymity in re-education camps, any action cannot come quickly enough.
Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter @excinit.