Leaders of Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations say they are still analyzing China’s treatment of Uyghurs to verify whether the minority group is subject to human rights violations.
The U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, Joseph Donovan, held separate meetings with the leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah in the past week, during which he called on them to speak out about allegations of abuses in China’s Xinjiang province, home to the Uyghur Muslim minority.
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 Chinese detention camps since April 2017.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has not been vocal amid concerns that it would be seen as interfering in another country’s internal affairs.
Following a meeting with Donovan, NU chairman Said Aqil Siradj said his organization would try to determine what is happening 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],” he said following Monday’s meeting at NU headquarters in Jakarta.
“We are still collecting information. Our team and the government will analyze the information,” he said.
Donovan said he had urged NU, which boasts more than 80 million members, to review its stance.
“I asked NU to take another look at the situation there. I pointed out that in a recent letter to the United Nations secretary general, five international human rights organizations described what is going on in Xinjiang as one of the most pressing human rights issues of our time,” Donovan told reporters.
Released on Sept. 16, the letter from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Commission of Jurists, International Federation for Human Rights and World Uyghur Congress expressed “deep concern about the arbitrary detention of more than 1 million Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China.”
“We also request that you openly support the formation of a fact-finding U.N. team to assess the scale and type of violations that have taken place in Xinjiang,” it said.
Last week, Donovan conveyed a similar message in a meeting with Indonesia’s other large Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, which has an estimated 30 million members.
Muhammadiyah said the allegations should be verified.
“This issue must be looked at carefully and there must be proof that violations of human rights took place,” the group’s secretary general, Abdul Mu’ti, told reporters after meeting Donovan at the group’s Jakarta headquarters.
“Don’t let human rights be used as a political commodity by certain countries toward others, because such problems happen everywhere,” he told reporters.
China has been criticized and faced 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.
While the Chinese government initially denied the existence of the camps, it changed tack this year and began describing the facilities as “boarding schools” providing vocational training for Uyghurs while discouraging radicalization and helping to protect the country from terrorism.
Reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service, a sister publication of BenarNews, and other media organizations, however, has shown that those in the camps have been detained against their will and are subjected to political indoctrination. They routinely face rough treatment, endure poor diets and unhygienic conditions in the often overcrowded facilities.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted 28 governmental or commercial entities from China it said were implicated in rights abuses against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
For its part, Indonesia has failed to stand up for the Uyghurs because it rejects interfering in China’s affairs and its Muslim groups have been cultivated by Beijing, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said in a report released in June.
The report said Indonesians believed Chinese explanations that the mass detentions without due process were necessary for security and they doubt human rights reports and testimony by Uyghur representatives who have visited Jakarta to appeal for help.
“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 Indonesian conflict.
The fact that China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second largest investor adds to Jakarta’s reluctance to speak out, it said.
IPAC said NU and Muhammadiyah treated reports of widespread human rights violations with skepticism, choosing to dismiss them as American propaganda in the Sino-U.S. power struggle. Their leaders have accepted invitations to visit Xinjiang and most seem to take China’s assurances of protecting religious freedom there at face value.
In February, China arranged guided tours for Indonesian Muslim leaders and reporters to see the “vocational training centers.”
“Once back in Jakarta, the head of NU delegation, Robikin Emha, announced during a news conference that there were no concentration or internment camps and endorsed the policy of countering radicalization through vocational training,” IPAC said.
The Indonesian Foreign Ministry has denied that Indonesia has been silent on the Uyghur issue, saying it had summoned the Chinese ambassador in December 2018 to seek an explanation about the allegations.
Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo slammed China over its repressive policies against the Uyghurs while calling on the international community to join Washington in protecting religious freedom.
Speaking at a Vatican conference on religious freedom, Pompeo singled out China as one of the worst perpetrators of abuse against people of faith, particularly in Xinjiang.
He highlighted the case of Zumuret Dawut, a Uyghur mother of three who in 2018 was detained for months in a camp where she said she was forced to recite Chinese propaganda, beaten for providing food to an ailing fellow prisoner and injected with unknown drugs