Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations called on China on Monday to end human rights violations against the Uyghur minority, in a departure from their previous muted stance.
The call by Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) came almost two months after the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia met with leaders of the two powerful groups and urged them to speak out about the mass incarceration of Uyghur Muslims at internment camps in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
“The government of China should stop all violations of human rights, especially against the Uyghur community, under whatever pretext,” Muhammadiyah, which claims some 30 million members, said in a statement.
China is believed to have locked up an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in internment camps since April 2017 amid a government crackdown on Islamic extremism in Xinjiang.
Beijing denies any allegations of mistreatment of Uyghurs and says the camps provide vocational training. It has refused to allow international observers into the camps.
“We urge the government of China to be more open in providing information and access to the international community about its policy on the Uyghur community in Xinjiang,” Muhammadiyah said in the statement.
The group’s comments followed a U.S. newspaper report last week that Beijing had launched a “concerted campaign” to convince Indonesia’s religious authorities and journalists that the internment camps in Xinjiang 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 Wall Street Journal report. Donations and other financial support from Beijing had also helped blunt criticism of its treatment of Uyghurs, the report said.
The article linked the silence of Muslim groups on the Uyghur issue to China’s charm offensive, in which Beijing allegedly courted clerics, politicians and journalists to support its policies in Xinjiang by offering Chinese government-sponsored trips to the region.
Muhammadiyah, however, questioned the accuracy of the news report without being specific.
NU deputy chairman Robikin Emhas, who was among a group of Indonesian Muslim leaders who visited Xinjiang at the invitation of the Chinese government in February, told BenarNews “there were problems” in Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
“Religious people can only practice their religion privately. In public they cannot practice their religion,” Robikin said.
He also said that Muslims consumed non-halal food and could not pray in camps where the Chinese government said they received vocational training to lure them away from extremism.
“We appeal for the provision of halal food to be guaranteed,” he said. “We also [urge Beijing] that [the Uyghurs] be allowed to practice their religion.”
Muhammadiyah, in its statement, also urged Indonesia – the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority country – to take a stronger stance on abuses against the Uyghurs.
“The government of Indonesia should be more active in its role as a member of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference) and a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to muster diplomacy toward ending human rights violations in Xinjiang and several other countries,” it said.
On Friday, NU deputy secretary general Masduki Baidlawi also clarified that his group’s stance on the Uyghurs was not linked to any financial incentives.
A change in stance
The criticism of Beijing by Muhammadiyah and NU marked a turnaround from their earlier stance on the Uyghur internment camps.
After separate meetings in October with Joseph Donovan, the U.S. envoy, Muhammadiyah and NU leaders said they were still analyzing China’s treatment of Uyghurs to verify whether rights abuses were taking place in Xinjiang.
“If there are human rights violations, we will make our voice heard, but if it’s a political issue and they want to be independent, it’s an internal affair [of China],” NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj said at the time.
“We are still collecting information. Our team and the government will analyze the information,” he added.
In July, the NU chairman said he had visited Xinjiang in 2016 but did not notice Muslims being persecuted.
“Islam is growing well in China. The government there is paying attention to Muslims by renovating mosques and hundreds of halal restaurants have been opened,” CNN Indonesia quoted Said as saying.
Four months earlier, Muhammadiyah secretary Agung Danarto had also denied the existence of internment camps in Xinjiang.
“Places, camps, dorms and classrooms were very comfortable and decent, and look nothing like prisons,” Agung said in a statement posted on the organization’s website in March.
Foreign ministry criticized
This week, Muhyiddin Junaidi, the head of international cooperation at the Indonesian Council of Ulema, a semi-official body of theologians, criticized the Foreign Ministry for its perceived silence on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
“It seems that we are too mindful of China’s feelings because they are one of the biggest foreign investors. Maybe the government is worried that investors will leave if we speak out,” Muhyiddin told BenarNews.
Muhyiddin, who led a delegation that visited Xinjiang in February, said his group was not allowed to talk freely to locals during the tour of what he described as a vocational training center.
“The Chinese government insists the Uyghurs are terrorists, radicals and separatists, but we should not make sweeping generalizations like that,” he said.
“They have different definitions. If you wear a headscarf in public, you are radical. It’s a violation of human rights but according to China it’s not because it’s in their constitution,” he said.
Muhyiddin said the group did not witness a detention camp during the visit.
“But looking at the activities and policies, I can see that there’s a lot of persecution carried out by China against the Uyghur people,” he said.
No ‘megaphone diplomacy,’ foreign ministry spokesman says
Teuku Faizasyah, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said Indonesia did not engage in “megaphone diplomacy” with China over the Uyghur issue but had made its stance known by summoning the Chinese ambassador in Jakarta for clarification earlier this year.
“We do things behind the scenes, engage in constructive discussions with friend countries, with nothing in mind but trying to find common views. If we talk too much publicly there will be a deficit of trust, so it’s more harmful,” he told BenarNews last week.
A report in June by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) had said Indonesia was reluctant to speak out on the Uyghur issue because the nation rejected interfering in China’s affairs.
“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,” IPAC said, referring to a long-running conflict in far eastern Indonesia, for which Jakarta has been repeatedly accused of committing rights abuses.
The fact that China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second largest investor adds to its reluctance to speak out, IPAC said.
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.
Reporting by the Uyghur Service of Radio Free Asia (RFA) – with which BenarNews is affiliated – and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps are detained against their will. They are also 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.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.