Malaysia’s Islamic Affairs minister has come under sharp criticism after describing a Uyghur internment camp that he visited in China as a “training and vocational center,” while human rights groups and U.S. officials have likened such facilities to concentration camps.
The controversy began during Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa’s eight-day trip to China, when on June 26 he posted photos on his official Facebook page that showed adults sitting at yellow school desks in a room surrounded with artificial flowers.
The minister declined Tuesday to disclose the location of the camp holding members of the Uyghur Muslim minority or answer other questions from BenarNews about his trip.
“The Center is running industrial training activities with various skills such as sewing, legislation, art, flower arrangement and et cetera,” a caption for one of the photos said, adding that Mujahid visited “the training and vocational center of the Uyghur community.”
The posting did not say if the “center” was in the Xinjiang region, where U.N. officials and rights groups said that up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other mainly Muslim Turkic minorities had been held in detention camps since April 2017.
Chinese authorities earlier denied the existence of internment camps, but said petty criminals had been sent to “employment training centers.”
On June 27, Amnesty International Malaysia expressed disappointment over the minister’s description of the camp.
“Amnesty International has first-hand knowledge that the Chinese authorities have detained Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims – outside any legal process – in ‘political education’ camps for their perceived disloyalty to the government and Chinese Communist Party,” the statement said.
“The authorities label the camps as centers for “transformation-through-education” but most people refer to them simply as “re-education camps,” Amnesty said.
In those camps, Uyghurs had been subjected to forced political indoctrination, renunciation of their faith, mistreatment, and, in some cases, torture, the rights watchdog group said.
In May, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in an apparent reference to policies under Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, cited “massive human rights violations in Xinjiang where over a million people are being held in a humanitarian crisis that is on the scale of what took place in the 1930s.”
On Monday, the Malaysian state news service Bernama reported that Mujahid’s visit to China was approved by the cabinet and “given guidance by the Foreign Ministry to ensure diplomatic ties between Malaysia and China were not affected.”
Mujahid didn’t only go to China to visit the Uyghur ethnic group but also to exchange views on peace and religion, according to Bernama.
On June 27, the Malaysian minister met with Wang Zuoan, vice minister of the United Front Work Department – the ideological unit of the Chinese Communist Party. During their discussion, Mujahid emphasized the importance of “freedom of religions and respecting the rights of the citizens to practice the religion of their choice,” said a statement issued by Mujahid’s office on Monday, in which he defended himself from criticism over his description of the camp.
The governments of Malaysia and neighboring Indonesia, the two largest Muslim-majority nations in Southeast Asia, have been vocal about the perceived oppression of the Palestinian people and persecution of Rohingya Muslims but relatively quiet about China’s policies toward the Uyghurs.
Last month, a Jakarta think tank lambasted Indonesia for failing to stand up for Uyghurs confined to internment camps in Xinjiang.
“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,” the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said in a report.
“The Indonesian government by and large sees the Uyghur crackdown as a legitimate response to separatism …,” it said.
IPAC also pointed to the fact that China was Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second largest investor, saying this added to Jakarta’s reluctance to speak out on the Uyghur issue.
China, for its part, has rejected allegations raised by a U.N. panel in August 2019 that Chinese authorities had built a “massive internment camp” in the restive Xinjiang region, where Beijing spent decades trying to suppress pro-independence sentiment.
Although Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, Chinese authorities tried to change the public image of those facilities, describing them instead as “boarding schools” that provided vocational training and discouraged radicalization.
P. Ramasamy, a senior official in the Democratic Action Party (DAP), one of the partners in Malaysia’s ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition, was among those back home criticizing Mujahid for describing the camps as “training centers.”
“It appears that Malaysia is willing to modify its policy on Muslims in general when it suits its political and strategic purpose,” Ramasamy, deputy chief minister of Penang state, told the Straits Times newspaper last week.
Reacting to the minister’s Facebook post about his visit to the Uyghur camp, Ahmad Farouk Musa, founder of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a Kuala Lumpur think tank, called Mujahid a “victim of Communist China propaganda.”
“This is surely the most imbecilic statement by our minister in this new government,” the news portal Free Malaysia Today (FMT) quoted Ahmad as saying in an interview.
Mujahid, in his press statement on Monday, tried to fend off accusations that he was pandering to Beijing’s propaganda.
A news report about his trip “was confusing, incorrect and did not portray the whole speech,” the statement from Mujahid’s office said, referring to Free Malaysia Today, which published the story.
The statement went on to defend a speech he made at the Beijing Foreign Studies University on June 28, in which FMT quoted Mujahid as saying that “false news” about Muslims being oppressed in China “could trigger a wave of sympathy for the oppressed and affect relationships.”
“In his speech text, the minister did not use the word Xinjiang or Uyghur as mentioned. The word ‘false news’ was used to describe how false news can jeopardize the bilateral relations between countries and communities,” the statement from Mujahid’s office said.
“For the record, China has approximately 20 million Muslims from various ethnic groups and has also 30,000 mosques and thousands of imams,” it added.
On Tuesday, Mujahid through his spokesman declined to respond to a series of questions from BenarNews about his trip to China, including whether he discussed with Chinese officials international concerns that had been raised about the mass incarceration of Uyghurs at internment camps, and whether his trip took him to Xinjiang.
As of September 2018, the fate of Uyghurs in detention camps in Xinjiang remains unknown and most of the detainees’ families have been kept in the dark, according to rights groups.
“China has intensified its campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against the region’s Uighurs, Kazakhs and other predominantly Muslim ethnic groups,” Amnesty said in its statement last week.
The controversy over Mujahid’s comments erupted about nine months after Malaysia freed 11 ethnic Uyghurs from detention and sent them to Turkey, in defiance of a request by Beijing that Kuala Lumpur hand them over to Chinese authorities. The 11 had fled to the Southeast Asian nation after breaking out of a jail in neighboring Thailand in 2017.