China’s economic and military strength may have prevented Muslim nations from criticizing its repression of the ethnic Uyghur minority, and Southeast Asian nations from questioning Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions in the South China Sea, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said.
In an interview with BenarNews, Mahathir suggested that China would most probably ignore them even if they criticized Beijing, adding that it was better not to antagonize the Asian giant and face negative consequences.
Mahathir has been a big champion of issues affecting the Muslim community, including the Rohingya, more than 740,000 of whom have fled to Bangladesh following a brutal crackdown by Myanmar’s military two years ago. He has also persistently condemned Israel’s actions against Palestinians.
But the 94-year-old leader has been relatively quiet on Beijing’s repression in Xinjiang, where it has been accused of holding more than 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017.
Asked about the apparent contradiction and the Muslim world’s general reluctance to criticize Beijing over the Uyghur issue, Mahathir cited what he described as the power wielded by China.
“Because China is a very powerful nation,” he told BenarNews. “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.
“Of course it’s a big trading partner of ours, and you do not want to do something that will fail, and in the process, also, we will suffer,” said Mahathir, who has never held back his criticism against the United States and other Western powers over various issues.
Human rights groups have attacked Mahathir and the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) for not speaking up for the Uyghurs when countries such as the United States had described Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang as “the stain of the century.”
“When even outspoken leaders like Mahathir bite their tongue rather than criticize, it illustrates the incredible steps China is taking to intimidate critics both near and far,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for New York-based HRW, told BenarNews.
“Like the rest of the OIC, Malaysia crumbled under pressure when it came time to speak the truth about the Uyghurs to the powers that be in Beijing. Mahathir should have bucked the trend and condemned the violations of rights and freedom of religion suffered by the Uyghurs,” he said.
Mujahid Yusof Rawa, Malaysia’s Islamic affairs minister, also came under fire recently for describing a Uyghur camp he visited in Xinjiang as a “training and vocational center” in line with Beijing's claims.
Beijing said the Uyghurs had been put in “education and training centers,” calling them “schools that help the people free themselves from terrorism and extremism and acquire useful skills.”
Mahathir: ASEAN can’t stand up against Beijing
Mahathir also told Benar that Southeast Asian nations would not be able to stand up as a group to China’s growing assertiveness as Beijing reinforces its claims to nearly the entire South China Sea.
Beijing has installed anti-ship cruise missile and surface-to-air missile systems on three islands in the Spratlys, a disputed group of atolls and isles in the sea, according to experts.
Malaysia, a Muslim-majority nation of 33 million people, as well as the Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam, are among members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that have overlapping claims with Beijing on the South China Sea. About U.S. $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes through the waterway each year.
“When we find that we ourselves [are] singled out by China for some action, I don’t think the other ASEAN countries have the capacity to put a stop to it. So like it or not, we have to deal with China by ourselves,” Mahathir said.
“Because although ASEAN wants to work together, there are things that it’s not able to do,” he said. “So because of that, well, even working together without any violence, that’s possible, we can have a firm stand on something, but if the Chinese take action, we are not in a position to resist or to act against them.”
Recently, the Chinese coast guard was tracked around an oil rig on Malaysia’s continental shelf and Chinese survey ships, which reportedly conduct research related to oil and gas exploration, were sighted in Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone off Borneo.
Asked about the Chinese survey ships, Mahathir said they had not obtained the Malaysian government’s permission to operate in Malaysian waters.
“No. They don’t have. And well, we watch what they are doing, we report what they are doing, but we do not chase them away or try to be aggressive,” he said.
“We have to accept the fact that China is a big power. You know, the Malay states have existed near China for the past two thousand years. We have survived because we know how to conduct ourselves,” Mahathir said. “We don’t go around trying to be aggressive when we don’t have the capacity, so we use other means.”