Too little too late: ASEAN’s role in the plight of the Uyghurs

Uyghurs sitting outside a Mosque in Shache, Xinjiang province. Photo Credit: Flickr

ASEAN was not hospitable to the Uyghur population when they arrived as refugees. But as the full extent of China’s mass incarceration policy comes to light, ASEAN nations have the opportunity to make amends. 

By Oliver Ward

“I have lost contact for more than twenty months with my family members. The last telephone communication I had with my mother was a very short telephone conversation, in the middle of April 2017,” the voice blared through the speakers. The voice belonged to Dolkun Isa, a political activist from Xinjiang, China and the President of the World Uyghur Congress.

Mr Isa, on a phone conversation from Munich, continued, “then, in 2018, in June, I got the news, the very heart-breaking news, that my mother [had] passed away. Actually, she had passed away on the 17th of May.” Dolkun Isa recounted how he had heard the news second hand, not through officials or family members.

Mr Isa’s mother died in an internment camp. She was an ethnic Uyghur, living in China’s Xinjiang province, or East Turkestan.

In 2001, following the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York, the Chinese government asserted the indigenous Muslim population of East Turkestan, known as the Uyghurs had close ties to the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden.

Uyghurs pray at Id Kah Mosque in Kashi, Xinjiang.
Photo Credit: Flickr

Uyghur leaders were campaigning for independence for East Turkestan and resented Chinese governance. However, no evidence existed then, nor has been uncovered since, of connections to the Taliban. There was little to suggest the existence of an organised terrorist movement.

Despite the lack of evidence, since 2001, under the guise of protecting national security, the Chinese government has increased the surveillance and monitor of Uyghur citizens.

In the last two years, China has embarked on a modern ethnic cleansing campaign

Since 2016, reports of the mass incarceration of Uyghurs in mass internment camps trickled out of Xinjiang. The Chinese government initially denied the reports, however, as the volume of witness testimonies increased, Beijing eventually conceded that it had established voluntary “vocational training centres” in an attempt to quell Islamic extremism in the region.

The real goal of these internment camps, Dolkun Isa says, is to “eradicate Uyghur identity.”

Detainees are kept in conditions akin to a high-security prison, behind fortified walls and under constant surveillance by guards in watchtowers and live CCTV feeds.

Individuals are kept separated from family members, are forced to learn the Chinese language, and have to take several hours of classes a day on Xi Jinping’s ideology.

In addition to the mental strain of constant surveillance, prisoners are expected to sit perfectly still for hours. If their posture changes or monitors watching the CCTV footage detect students to be distracted or falling asleep, large loudspeakers berate them into returning to their upright position and stop their fidgeting.

Students are prohibited from socializing and communication between detainees is restricted. In clear breaches of international human rights laws, former detainees have reported physical torture taking place in the camps, as well as forced sleep deprivation and intrusive medical examinations.

When Mihrigul Tursun, a 29-year-old told Uyghur recounted her three-month ordeal in an internment camp, she said, “I thought I would rather die than go through this torture and begged them to kill me.”

“The estimated number [of detained Uyghurs]as of the beginning of 2018 was one million, but… the Chinese government expanded these camps”, Dolkun Isa explained, “some of these camps are five or six times larger than before.” Mr Isa estimates that the number of Uyghurs now detained in these internment camps could be as large as three million.

ASEAN has not been an ally of the Uyghur population

Between 2011 and 2015, Sean Roberts, the Director and Associate Professor of the International Development Studies Program at George Washington University, estimates that around 15,000 Uyghurs fled Xinjiang to Turkey via Southeast Asia.

Roberts said in an email, “the Uyghurs I have interviewed who took this route said they were approached by Han Chinese traffickers who came to their village to offer them ways to leave the country.”

Traffickers demanded between 4,000 and 5,000 yuan per person (US$600 to $800) in exchange for transportation to the border. Once there, traffickers then asked for an additional 15,000 yuan (US$2,300) to take them across the border.

However, once they left China and entered Southeast Asia, the Uyghurs did not receive a warm welcome. In 2014, Thailand detained 350 Uyghurs who had entered the country clandestinely in an attempt to reach Turkey. Many claimed to be of Turkish origin in an attempt to avoid being deported back to China.

Shortly afterwards, the Thai government deported 100 Uyghurs to China, and sent 170 to Turkey, in a move that drew criticism from human rights groups and the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Explaining the decision, Darren Byler, a lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Washington, told ASEAN Today, “Thailand has much closer ties with China than Turkey, which means China is able to exert more pressure on Thailand.”

Byler added, “in at least one case, Thai authorities determined that Uyghur women and children were Turkish citizens and sent them to Turkey, while the men in the same group were sent to China, where they subsequently disappeared.”

In Malaysia, there was a similar story. Between 2013 and 2017, Malaysia deported 28 Uyghurs to China as part of an intelligence-sharing agreement between Beijing and Kuala Lumpur.

Alip Erkin, an activist that runs Uyghur Bulletin, was studying in Malaysia at the time. He told ASEAN Today, “we used to estimate the number of [Uyghur] students there at 200-300”, he added, “since the 2017 crackdown and recalling of overseas students… many of them left for other countries, mostly for Turkey”.

“Nobody feels safe in Malaysia”, he said, “they would have to be deported if they encounter passport or visa problems.”

There were also reports of Malaysian police robbing and intimidating Uyghur refugees. In one case, Malaysian police took US$10,000 from one refugee. Elsewhere, in another instance, Vietnamese policemen beat a group of Uyghurs with sticks and took their cash.

There are opportunities to make amends

As the international media continues to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, ASEAN nations have indicated that they have adjusted their stance and are now willing to offer more assistance to Uyghur refugees.

At the end of 2017, Thailand announced that it would not deport a group of ethnic Uyghurs that escaped an immigration detention centre, after coming under pressure from the Malaysian government.

The group fled across the border into Malaysia and then, in October 2018, the Malaysian government ensured they received safe passage to Turkey.

However, in assisting Uyghur refugees, it is too little too late. All the scholars ASEAN Today spoke to confirmed that following an intensification of surveillance activities, none, or very few, of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang are now able to leave the country via Southeast Asia.

There are ways ASEAN nations can have an effect, but none are doing so in any meaningful way

If ASEAN nations truly wish to take a stand and oppose China’s rampant human rights abuses carried out against the Uyghur community, there are avenues to do so.

However, many are reluctant to do so. “My sense is that the Chinese investment in ASEAN economies prevents many nations from taking a strong stance on these issues; there is also significant resentment toward Uyghurs in Thailand after a Uyghur carried out a bombing following the deportation of over 100 Uyghurs,” Darren Byler explained.

ASEAN’s response to the persecution of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs has been predictably muted. Following protests, and mounting internal pressure, Indonesia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Chinese Ambassador and quizzed him over his nation’s commitment to human rights.

Predictably, Ambassador Xiao Qian held the Beijing line that the internment camps were nothing more than voluntary education centres.

Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kulla, seemingly satisfied with the response, reiterated that “we don’t want to intervene in the domestic affairs of another country”, signalling that the entire gesture may have simply been a PR stunt to boost Joko Widodo’s appeal among Islamic voters heading into the 2019 election.

As the Rohingya crisis has shown, Indonesia does not typically become active on human rights issues until refugees arrive on Indonesian soil. Given the flow of Uyghur refugees has been stemmed, it is unlikely Widodo’s government will adopt a firm stance on the issue in the near future.

But Indonesia and Malaysia, as Muslim-majority nations in the region, have the responsibility to be vocal in their condemnation of China’s human rights abuses. This should begin with a firm statement calling on China to immediately abolish the “transformation through education” Uyghur detention program.

Sean Roberts told ASEAN Today, “a concerted effort through the UN to get the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to scale back what it is doing in the region might have some impact. However, this will require Muslim majority states to be more vocal on what is happening as an act of desecration of the Islamic religion.”

All ASEAN nations should also push for an independent investigation into the unethical activities taking place inside the internment camps. The UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, has requested direct access to China’s re-education camps. As of yet, no permission has been granted.

ASEAN can use One Belt One Road (OBOR) and education as leverage

Beyond international pressure and statements of condemnation, ASEAN nations also have some very tangible diplomatic weapons at their disposal.

ASEAN is the lynchpin to China’s US$200 billion OBOR strategy in the region. Through strategic investment in ASEAN’s infrastructure, China is seeking to trigger increased demand for its products and open up new trading frontiers in Southeast Asia.

If ASEAN nations, particularly Malaysia, a Muslim-majority country that is already scrutinising Chinese objectives in the OBOR project, made human rights protections for the Uyghur population a prerequisite for involvement in OBOR, it may be able to table a meaningful conversation on the issue.

Education is another area where ASEAN nations, particularly Malaysia and Indonesia, have the leverage to pressure China to roll back its human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Both countries have university partnerships with China designed to facilitate the exchange of students and research.  Malaysia’s affordability, use of English in higher education and proximity to China have made it an especially popular destination for Chinese students pursuing higher education.

University partnerships abroad are a central part of China’s higher education policy. There are opportunities for Indonesia and Malaysia to incorporate the preservation of Uyghur rights into the preconditions for the maintenance of these higher education partnerships as additional leverage.

ASEAN nations must adopt measures to bring an end to the mass incarceration of the country’s Turkic Muslims. Not just as a statement of solidarity with fellow Muslims, but because human rights abuses carried out by an authoritarian government under the guise of counter-terrorism in China could easily replicate itself elsewhere.

Allowing President Xi to undertake a homogenization campaign in China sends a message to religious and ethnic minorities in ASEAN that ASEAN nations will not protect them. With no shortage of authoritarian governments and terrorist threats inside ASEAN, if member states do nothing, it could have significant future repercussions.

ASEAN’s previous inhospitality to Uyghur refugees and its own inaction over the Rohingya crisis are both examples of too little too late. But now, it has an opportunity to redeem itself.

Dolkun Isa concluded his phone call from Munich with a statement. His voice racked with urgency, he said, “today the Chinese government is implementing crimes against humanity… we cannot wait”, he added, “tomorrow may be too late.”