Updated at 3:36 a.m. ET on 2019-08-01
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a Turkish news outlet that condemning China over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority “would not achieve anything,” drawing criticism from human rights groups on Wednesday.
Mahathir was asked in an interview by TRT World why Malaysia and other majority-Muslim countries were slow to speak out against Beijing’s policies toward the Uyghurs, and why Kuala Lumpur had not joined 22 countries in signing a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that condemned China’s mass detention of Uyghurs.
“We do what we can. We don’t knock our heads against a stone wall simply because it is there,” Mahathir told the Turkish radio and television channel.
The Malaysian leader said he needed more information about the plight of the Uyghurs before passing judgment on the Chinese. He described China as a powerful nation that must be treated as such.
Authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in internment camps since April 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang as a humanitarian crisis that is “on the scale of what took place in the 1930s” in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. He also called the incarcerations “the stain of the century.”
Mahathir said condemning China would not resolve the issue.
“At the moment we need to verify certain things of what they are accused of. Of course they deny,” he said in the interview. “We believe that the approach should not be confrontational. It should be through negotiation and exposure of what is actually happening in China.
“We can condemn it [China] but the fact is that the condemnation alone would not achieve anything,” he said. The interview was uploaded to YouTube on July 29, but Malaysian media reported about it widely on Wednesday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and rights advocates in Malaysia react on Wednesday to the prime minister’s comments.
“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, referring to the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Aminuddin Yahya, president of Malaysia’s Coalition of Muslim Groups (ISMA), urged Mahathir’s administration to speak out against China’s Uyghur policies.
“There are too many facts from a variety of sources proving the torture against the Uyghur Muslims,” Aminuddin said.
“The government should voice its displeasure to China. This is the question of the fate of the Muslim community and is not a political issue,” he told BenarNews.
The condemnation of torture against Myanmar’s stateless Rohingya community, another minority Muslim group, should be matched by similar condemnation involving the Uyghurs, he added.
Like many other countries, the Malaysian government has major trade deals with China, Ahmad Fahmi Mohd Samsuddin, deputy president of the Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia, pointed out. Those deals are the main reason government officials will not speak out on the Uyghur issue, he said.
“Malaysia cannot be alone but with ‘big brothers’ like Turkey and Pakistan and maybe Indonesia, perhaps it can add weight to this issue. But in reality, many countries including Pakistan and Indonesia, are in a debt trap with China,” he told BenarNews.
Over the weekend, Mahathir returned home after a state visit to Turkey, which is home to a large Uyghur community.
Xinjiang internment camps
While Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China this year changed tack and started describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Earlier this month, Malaysia’s Islamic affairs minister was criticized for describing a Uyghur camp he visited as a “training and vocational center.” Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa posted photos on Facebook that showed adults sitting at yellow school desks in a room surrounded with artificial flowers, but did not disclose the location of the camp.
Less than a year ago, the Malaysian government defied China by releasing 11 Uyghurs who had fled to Malaysia from Thailand after escaping from a prison in November 2017 and allowing them to travel to Turkey. Beijing had sought their repatriation but Mahathir said the men had broken no laws.
An earlier version incorrectly reported that the TRT World interview with Mahathir aired on July 31.