Updated at 5:54 p.m. ET on 2019-10-02
Malaysia expressed “serious displeasure” Wednesday over a foreign news report quoting a diplomat from the country as criticizing internment camps for ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.
Malaysia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was referring to a New York Times article last week that published quotes from a “private account” by the Malaysian diplomat who had visited some of the camps in two Xinjiang cities.
China has come under fire for placing more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims minorities in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017, accusing them of harboring “strong religious views” and politically incorrect ideas.
Beijing has been calling these camps boarding schools and vocational centers.
“Delegates could actually sense fear and frustration from the students,” the Malaysian diplomat wrote after his December visit with a dozen other diplomats from mostly Muslim nations, the New York Times reported.
“China may have legitimate reasons to implement policies intended to eliminate the threat of terrorism, especially in Xinjiang. However, judging by its approach, it is addressing the issue wrongly and illegitimately, e.g. preventing Muslim minors from learning the Quran,” the diplomat was quoted saying in his report.
The diplomat referred to the once-bustling Kashgar and Hotan cities in Xinjiang as “zombie towns,” saying the streets were virtually empty and that China was probably “using the threat of terrorism as an excuse to ‘sanitize’ Uighur Muslims until they become acceptable Chinese citizens.”
The Malaysian foreign ministry said in a statement that the New York Times report “appears to carry malicious intent,” adding that it “expresses serious displeasure at and disapproves” of the article.
“The ministry does not comment on the specifics of its internal communications, which are a matter of strict confidentiality,” the statement said, underscoring close ties between Malaysia and China. “Those communications are not meant to be made public.”
In its report titled “China wants the world to stay silent on Muslim camps,” the Times raised questions on China’s claim that its state-mandated detention camps, surrounded by high walls and watchtowers, are central to its fight against Muslim extremism.
Beijing has described them as boarding schools, explaining that detainees are in the camps voluntarily, the Times report said, as it explained how China would generally handpick visitors, including journalists from friendly countries who are then often quoted in the state-run Chinese news media offering flattering comments.
But such trips “do not always go as planned,” the Times article said. It quoted two reports – one from European Union officials and another from a Malaysian diplomat who visited Kashgar and Hotan cities in Xinjian last year with a dozen other diplomats from mostly Muslim nations.
The report quoted the Malaysian as saying that delegates in the trip “could actually sense fear and frustration from the ‘students’” in the internment camps.
In July, Malaysia’s Islamic Affairs minister came under sharp criticism after describing a Uyghur internment camp that he visited in China as a “training and vocational center,” contradicting U.S. officials and rights groups that have likened such facilities to concentration camps.
“The Center is running industrial training activities with various skills such as sewing, legislation, art, flower arrangement and et cetera,” said a caption for one of the photos posted on June 26 on Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa’s Facebook page. The official declined to disclose the location of the Uyghur camp that he had visited in China.
Chinese authorities label the camps as centers for “transformation-through-education” but most people refer to them simply as “re-education camps,” according to Amnesty International.
Prime minister questioned about Uyghurs
The statement issued by Malaysia’s foreign office on Wednesday came days after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told BenarNews, during an interview in New York, that China’s diplomatic and economic power may have prevented Muslim nations from criticizing its repression of the ethnic Uyghur minority.
Mahathir, a champion of issues affecting the Muslim community, 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 and systematic surveillance 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,” the 94-year-old leader 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.”
But China’s sweeping confinement of Uyghurs has spurred criticisms from human rights groups, which have criticized 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.”