Thousands of people took to the streets in Indonesia and Malaysia on Friday to protest against China’s internment of nearly 2 million ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in camps in the Xinjiang region, amid growing calls for action over their plight.
The demonstrations took place as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad vowed not to extradite Uyghurs who seek refuge in his country.
“The issues of oppression against Islam worldwide, including the Uyghurs, exist and must be acknowledged by all parties,” Mahathir said, reiterating that his government would not interfere in China’s internal affairs.
He was replying to a parliamentary question on whether Malaysia would take in Uyghur refugees or send them to a third country.
“If Uyghurs are fleeing to Malaysia to seek asylum, Malaysia will not extradite them even if there is an application from China,” he said. “They are allowed to go to the third country because they have valid fears over their safety.”
After Friday prayers about 1,000 mostly Muslim protesters gathered in heavy rain outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta, in the largest demonstration to date in the Southeast Asian country against Beijing’s crackdown on Muslim minorities. Many of the protesters wore white Islamic garb and skull caps.
They waved banners that read: “China, stop genocide of ethnic Uyghurs,” “Shame on you China for depriving Uyghurs of their freedom,” and “Over one million Uyghurs arbitrarily detained in China, Indonesia must speak out.”
Slamet Maarif led the large protest in the Indonesian capital.
“Under the pretext of fighting radicalism, Uyghur Muslims are denied the freedom of worship, economic, social and political rights as well as their culture and humanity,” he told the crowd of demonstrators.
Slamet urged the Chinese government to end human rights violations against the Uyghurs and open access to independent international investigators, while calling on Indonesians to show solidarity by boycotting Chinese-made goods.
“We call on the people of Indonesia, especially Muslims, to boycott Chinese products, withdraw all deposits from Chinese banks, and stop all forms of cooperation with China,” he said, reading out the protesters’ demands.
Hundreds of demonstrators also gathered on Friday outside China’s consulate-general in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
“As fellow Muslims, we also feel sick here when our brothers are oppressed in Xinjiang,” Djoko Satria, one of the protesters in Jakarta, told BenarNews.
Another demonstrator, Teti Irawati, urged the Indonesian government not to turn a blind eye to the plight of the Muslims in China.
‘The Indonesian government must not remain silent about the suffering there, because according to our constitution, occupation and oppression must be abolished,” the 48-year-old woman told BenarNews.
Smaller protests against China also occurred in Jakarta and Banda Aceh last week.
The demonstrations came amid renewed attention to the issue in Indonesia after a U.S. newspaper reported about a “concerted campaign” by Beijing to convince Indonesian religious authorities and journalists that the Xinjiang camps were a “well-meaning effort” to provide job training and combat extremism.
Views in Indonesia about the camps had changed after more than a dozen top Indonesian religious leaders visited the so-called re-education facilities, according to the report by the Wall Street Journal. Donations and other financial support from Beijing had also helped blunt criticism of its treatment of Uyghurs, the report said.
Hundreds rally in KL
In neighboring Malaysia, about 700 of members of various groups gathered in front of the Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur.
In a joint memorandum, the groups, including Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (ABIM) and Hizbut Tahrir, urged Beijing to respect the rights of the Uyghurs.
“We demand the Chinese government to stop the extreme discrimination and ask them to close the camps in Xinjiang that are housing hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs that are oppressed by Beijing,” ABIM’s leader, Muhammad Faisal Abdul Aziz, told reporters.
Embassy officials refused to meet protest representatives, who said they were hoping to hand over the document with their statements.
“We left the memorandum in the mailbox in front of the Chinese embassy for their further action. This is the second time our memorandum is left undelivered to any representative of the embassy,” he said.
The protesters also criticized the Malaysian government, with Hizbut Tahrir demanding stronger action against Beijing, including severing diplomatic ties.
In September, Prime Minister Mahathir told BenarNews in an interview that China’s economic and military strength may have prevented Muslim nations from criticizing Beijing’s repression of the Uyghurs.
“[C]hina is a very powerful nation,” he said at the time. “You don’t just try and do something which would anyway fail, so it is better to find some other less violent ways not to antagonize China too much, because China is beneficial for us.”
On Dec. 24, however, the youth wing of Mahathir’s Bersatu party urged his government “to take the initiative to mediate a solution to the ongoing religious suppression in China,” as it called on Beijing to immediately cease “all oppressive actions upon the Uyghurs.”
Indonesia takes non-interference stance
Meanwhile on Dec. 23, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s chief of staff, former Gen. Moeldoko, said Indonesia would not interfere in China’s internal affairs regarding the detention of Uyghurs.
“Each country has its own sovereignty to regulate its citizens,” Moeldoko told reporters when asked why Indonesia was not more vocal about the Uyghur issue. “The Indonesian government won’t interfere in the domestic affairs of China.”
He made the remarks days after meeting with Beijing’s ambassador to Jakarta, Xiao Qian, who said afterward that allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang were false. The Chinese envoy invited Indonesians to visit the province to see for themselves the situation in the autonomous region.
China began locking up an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in a vast network of internment camps in April 2017 over accusations that members of these groups harbored “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas.
Last week, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – also called on China to end human rights violations against the Uyghurs, in a departure from their previous muted stance.
Human rights groups have accused Beijing of trying to erase the Uyghur culture, language and religious traditions. But Chinese officials have repeatedly denied those allegations, saying the “boarding schools” in Xinjiang provide vocational training for the Muslim minority.
On Thursday, a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s biggest Muslim group, compared the situation in Xinjiang to that in the easternmost province of Papua, where security forces fighting separatist insurgents have also faced accusations of human rights abuses.
“If we allow the conflict to drag on, not only China will suffer, but the entire region will be destabilized,” NU leader Yahya Staquf was quoted by CNN Indonesia as telling a discussion in Jakarta.
“The same goes with Papua, a separation would be hugely destabilizing,” he said.
Nihsa David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.