Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has failed to stand up for the 1.5 million or more Muslim Uyghurs held in internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region because it rejects interfering in China’s affairs and its Muslim groups have been cultivated by Beijing, a Jakarta think tank said on Thursday.
The report, “Explaining Indonesia’s Silence on the Uyghur Issue” by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), says Indonesians believe Chinese explanations that the mass detentions without due process are necessary for security and they doubt human rights reports and testimony by Uyghur diaspora representatives who have visited Jakarta to appeal for help.
“The systematic repression of China’s ethnic Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang Autonomous Region has caused little angst in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country,” said the report.
“The Indonesian government by and large sees the Uyghur crackdown as a legitimate response to separatism, and it will no more interfere in China’s ‘domestic affairs’ than it would accept Chinese suggestions for how it should deal with Papua,” it said, referring to a long-running conflict for which Jakarta has been repeatedly accused of genocide.
“The fact that China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second largest investor adds to its reluctance to speak out, but economic considerations are not the major factor here,” it said.
Up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas have been held in detention camps since April 2017.
China has come under strong criticism, and calls for sanctions against officials responsible for the camps, from the United States and other Western countries. The Muslim world, with a few exceptions has remained silent.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Taking China claims at face value
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will and subjected to political indoctrination, routinely face rough treatment at the hands of their overseers, and endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
In Indonesia, however, China’s explanations appear to hold water—even with the large Muslim organizations, IPAC said.
“The country’s largest Muslim organizations treat reports of widespread human rights violations with skepticism, choosing to dismiss them as American propaganda in the Sino-US power struggle. Their leaders have also accepted invitations to visit Xinjiang and most seem to take China’s assurances of protecting religious freedom there at face value,” said the report.
“The hundreds of Indonesian Muslims studying in China by and large have a positive experience, contributing to an unwillingness to acknowledge serious restrictions on religious practice,” it added.
China recently organized visits to monitor re-education camps in the XUAR—one for a small group of foreign journalists, and another for diplomats from non-Western countries, including Russia, Indonesia, Kazakhstan and Thailand.
In February, China arranged guided tours for Indonesian Muslim leaders and reporters to see the “vocational training centers”–a policy that worked on Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah.
“NU delegates apparently took their host’s claims at face value,” said the report.
“Once back in Jakarta, the head of NU delegation, Robikin Emha, announced during a press conference that there were no concentration or internment camps and endorsed the policy of countering radicalization through vocational training,” it said.
Muhammadiyah secretary Agung Danarto went further, praising camp facilities, it said.
“The camps are great, there [the students] are given life-skills training, and so forth. They get lessons in agriculture, restaurant operation, cooking and automotive repair,” the report quoted him as saying.
'Barely registers' with foreign ministry
Indonesia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, faces “so many issues demanding attention in the bilateral Indonesia-China relationship, from the South China Sea to the difficulties of matching China’s Belt and Road Initiative to Indonesia’s development agenda, that the Uyghur issue barely registers,” said IPAC.
Last month, during the Islamic world’s celebration of Ramadan, the U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch (HRW) launched a campaign aimed at persuading Islamic countries to end their silence over the internment camps.
The “Close the Camps” social media called on “the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), its member countries, and other concerned governments to speak up for Xinjiang’s Muslims.”
Early this month, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback told RFA’s Uyghur Service that Muslim countries should join efforts to end the camp system.
“If China is willing to do this to their own Muslim population, what do they think of Muslims around the world that peacefully practice their faith?” he asked.
Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Arrmanatha Nasir denied that Indonesia had not spoken out on the Uyghur issue, saying that the ministry had summoned the Chinese ambassador in December to seek an explanation about allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang.
"We have not stood idly by. The Indonesian representatives were among few foreign representatives in Beijing who visited the locations (in Xinjiang)," he told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news outlet.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla said in December that he was concerned about reports about China's treatment of the Uyghurs and urged Beijing to respect its international human rights obligations.
"We asked China and its embassy here to explain to the public and Islamic organizations," he said, according to CNN Indonesia.
Uyghurs see 'moral obligation'
An international law expert at the University of Indonesia, Hikmahanto Juwana, said Indonesia must be cautious in reacting to the issue.
"It's not true that Indonesia isn't vocal enough, but there's a belief that we can never support the Uyghurs separating from China," he told BenarNews.
"It's a human rights issue but it is plausible that there are certain parties with an agenda and they don't want China to be a global super power," he said.
Another scholar, however, advocated speaking out for the Uyghurs.
The president of Muhammadiyah University, Syaiful Bakhri, said the international community must not be silent if there were human rights violations such as ethnic cleansing.
"It is only right that Indonesia condemns a government whose conduct is not civilized," he said.
Asked about Indonesia’s stance, Uyghur-American Association President Ilshat Hassan said “Indonesia, as the biggest Muslim democracy in the world, has moral obligations to call on China to close all the concentration camps and release all innocent Uyghurs.”
“At the least Indonesia should condemn China’s crime against humanity toward Uyghur and other Muslim peoples instead of keeping quiet due to Chinese investment,” he told RFA.
The IPAC report said that Jakarta officials “have made it clear that they would welcome constructive policy suggestions that might help the Uyghurs without provoking China.”
“It is hard to see points of intervention, however, when China is convinced that its ‘Strike Hard’ campaign has prevented violence in Xinjiang, and when its charm offensive targeting Indonesian Muslims has been remarkably successful,” cautioned the report.
Reported by RFA's Uyghur Service and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Written by Paul Eckert.