Uyghurs abuse: Muslim governments silent

A woman takes part in a protest march of Ethnic Uyghurs asking for the European Union to call upon China to respect human rights in the Chinese Xinjiang region in Brussels on 27 April, 2018. (Emmanuel Dunand / AFP Photo)

As calls grow in the United States (US) and Europe to pressure China to halt alleged human-rights abuses against its Muslim minority, Beijing has so far escaped any serious criticism from governments across the Islamic world.

Almost three weeks after a United Nations (UN) official cited “credible reports” that the country was holding as many as one million Turkic-speaking Uyghurs in “re-education” camps, governments in Muslim-majority countries have issued no notable statements on the issue. The silence became more pronounced this week after a bipartisan group of US lawmakers urged sanctions against senior Chinese officials.

“We are hopeful that the State Department will seek additional opportunities to condemn these abuses while also undertaking robust diplomatic engagement with like-minded governments to further elevate this human rights crisis in international forums and multilateral institutions,” lawmakers led by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Chris Smith of New Jersey wrote Wednesday in a letter to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. They joined European Union (EU) officials who have previously expressed concern about the camps in Xinjiang.

By contrast, the leaders of Indonesia, Malaysia and Pakistan haven’t released public statements on the clampdown. Neither has Saudi Arabia. Even Turkey, which has in the past offered favourable policies to Turkic-speaking groups and hosts a small Uyghur population of its own, remained silent as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan grappled with an economic crisis.

Trade ties

The split underscores how China’s position as a key trading partner and aid provider to many Muslim-majority nations - as well as its longstanding policy to avoid commenting on the internal affairs of other countries - is now paying off. The alleged abuses are also occurring in one of China’s most remote and heavily policed frontiers, making it hard to acquire first-hand evidence, such as photos and videos, that might sway public opinion in the Islamic world.

“China generally has friendly relations with most Muslim countries, mostly around trade,” said Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, a Washington think tank. The Muslim world is largely unaware of the situation in Xinjiang, he added. “It’s not covered almost at all in Arabic media, and even jihadis don’t dwell on it as much as they do about other conflicts.”

China officially denies problems in Xinjiang, a vast region the size of Alaska bordering Pakistan and Afghanistan that’s home to some 10 million Uyghurs. On Thursday, Beijing warned the US lawmakers not to interfere in its internal affairs.

“The policies and equal rights that Chinese minorities enjoy are far better than in the US, which has a lot of issues with racism and human rights protection,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a briefing in Beijing. The lawmakers should focus on issues at home “instead of interfering in other countries’ internal politics, playing judges on human rights and casting blame, or even threatening to impose unreasonable sanctions,” she said.

Strike first

China’s clampdown has been fuelled by President Xi Jinping’s orders to “strike first” against Islamist extremism following deadly attacks in the region involving Uyghurs, and reports that some members of the minority were fighting alongside terror groups in Syria. A Communist Party-run newspaper has rebuked criticism of the crackdown, arguing that it had prevented Xinjiang from becoming another Syria.

The silence on Uyghurs contrasts with outrage last year when some 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled clearance operations by the Myanmar military, which the UN has since likened to genocide. One big difference between the two cases: Myanmar’s economy is 180 times smaller than that of China’s, which is the top trading partner of 20 of the 57-member states of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

China accounts for about a tenth of Saudi Arabia’s oil exports and roughly a third of Iran’s. It is Malaysia’s top source of foreign investment. And it has ensured the flow of more than US$60 billion in loans for China-Pakistan Economic Corridor infrastructure projects.

Muslim nations “don’t want to damage their relations with China, and consider China a potential ally against the West and the US, and therefore they are trying to stay silent,” said Omer Kanat, chairman of the executive committee at the World Uyghur Congress, an overseas Uyghur advocacy group.

Over the years, these governments have vocally opposed US slights of Muslims, including President Donald Trump’s 2017 ban on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif called it “a great gift to extremists.”

An expert testifying before a UN human rights panel on 10 August cited reports that Beijing may be holding up to one million Uyghurs in re-education camps. International media reported in January on the government conducting experiments with facial recognition technology in the region.

The governments of Turkey, India, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt did not respond to requests to comment for this story. Multiple phone calls to the OIC for comment were not answered.

Dangerous spill over

To be sure, maintaining trade ties isn’t the only motivator. Some governments are loathing to draw global attention to their own shabby human rights records. Beijing has largely refrained from involving itself in conflicts in the Muslim world.

Those nations “don’t particularly respect human rights themselves, so it’s hard to imagine that they would jump at an opportunity to criticize China,” said David Brophy, Senior Lecturer in Modern Chinese History at the University of Sydney.

Still, it could prove increasingly difficult to maintain their silence, as China’s policies in Xinjiang spill across its borders.

In Kazakhstan - a neighbouring economic partner key to Xi’s signature Belt and Road trade initiative - an undocumented, ethnic-Kazakh Chinese citizen recently testified to being forced to teach in a camp before escaping. Kazakh authorities, risking Beijing’s anger, allowed her to remain.

The incident shows that the crackdown is starting to seep into China’s foreign relations, said James Millward, a professor at Georgetown University and author of “Eurasian Crossroads: A History of Xinjiang.”

“What we’re seeing is the policy effects of a shift in philosophy with regard to cultural diversity and ethnic diversity in China,” he said. - Bloomberg