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Are Indonesia and Malaysia Ready to Stand up for China’s Muslims?



By now, the scale of the crisis is clear. There are up to 3 million Turkic Muslims – primarily Uyghurs but also ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz – in a vast network of concentration camps in China’s far western region of Xinjiang. The result is the 21st century’s greatest human rights crisis: Empty Uyghur neighborhoods. Students, musicians, athletes, and peaceful academics jailed. “Graduates” of these camps are being put into forced labor factories, churning out goods that are even reaching the United States.

It’s clear that what began as a movement to clamp down on terrorism has become an attempt to eradicate an entire ethnic group and their religion – Islam, which is being seen as a mental illness and incompatible with Chinese-style socialism. Yet, so far, the world’s reaction has been muted – including in the Islamic world, in the same countries where, in the past years, there have been widespread protests and public statements in support of the human rights of Palestinian and Rohingya Muslims.

“I don’t know what they are waiting for,” said Omer Kanat, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, DC. “All the evidence shows that a crime against humanity is being committed by the Chinese government in East Turkestan,” he added, using the Uyghur’s preferred name for Xinjiang.

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While many are looking toward the Middle East, Turkey, or China’s neighboring Muslim-majority nations of Pakistan and Kazakhstan as possible leaders, the best hope for pressure from the Islamic world may come from an unlikely place: Southeast Asia, namely, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Why Southeast Asia

They key factor is that, even though Southeast Asia’s two Muslim-majority countries have limited historical, cultural, or linguistic ties to the Uyghurs, they are both democracies that are responsive to public pressure, unlike most other Muslim majority nations. They also have a freer press that has allowed for more coverage of what’s happening in China – and that coverage is, slowly, increasing.

“In mainstream Indonesian press since mid-December or so, when it became a topic of debate in Parliament, there has been more coverage,” said Aaron Connelly, research fellow for Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “And Malaysians have been reading about what has been going on Xinjiang even more frequently than Indonesians.”

In fact, in both countries, there are early signs that the Uyghur issue is gaining traction. Malaysia has been standing up to China more and more, canceling several joint projects since the Pakatan Harapan coalition took power earlier this year. This might soon translate to human rights issues. A telling moment came earlier this year, when likely future Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim spoke publicly in support of Uyghurs, making him one of the first Muslim political leaders anywhere in the world to do so. The government even followed up rhetoric with action, letting a groups of Uyghur asylum seekers go to Turkey rather than be deported to China, despite the latter’s protests, and reversing the policy of the previous government.

“We took a strong stand on human rights, and it says a lot about our new government,” said Ahmad Farouk Musa, the director of the Malaysian nongovernmental organization Islamic Renaissance Front. “There was no valid reason for us to deport the asylum seekers back to China, because if we sent them to China, we are sending them the gallows.”

Neighboring Indonesia, the world most populous Muslim country, is seeing early signs that the Uyghur issue may play a role in the coming election, due for this coming April. One Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), a member of the opposition coalition, has already called on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to speak out. And earlier in January, Indonesia’s powerful Ulema Council became one of the first such entities in the Islamic world to condemn the oppression of the Uyghurs.

The challenge for Indonesia is that 2019 is an election year, and there is strong evidence that the emergence of the Uyghur issue is connected more to domestic politics than genuine human rights concerns. Many noted the presence of notorious right-wing Islamist organizations, including the Islamic Defenders Front, at pro-Uyghur rallies that took place last December in several Indonesia cities. One of the organizers, Slamet Ma’arif, became well known when, in 2016 and 2017, he helped lead mass mobilizations against Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, who was ethnically Chinese and Christian, using racist and religiously tinged rhetoric.

This bring up another concern – that the Uyghur issue could play into domestic racial politics and lead to the conflation of Chinese and Chinese-Indonesian.

“If you’re pluralist, but Javanese Muslim like Jokowi you’re going to worry that your country is not mature enough to distinguish between Beijing and Chinese Indonesians, and that if you push and things become tense between Indonesia and Beijing, then things are going to become difficult for Chinese-Indonesians,” said Connelly.

Add in Indonesia’s notorious quietness on the global stage, and you have a country that is not likely to lead unless protests rise to the level that Jokowi can no longer ignore them without risking his political future.

“There’s no courage in Indonesian diplomacy at the moment… it likes to be seen as constructive and nonconfrontational,” said Connelly. “It’s very unlikely that Indonesia try to play a constructive role.”

That’s why action from Malaysia is more promising, due several factors; to its more favorable domestic situation – the ruling coalition is being led by caretaker Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is not concerned about future elections – and, crucially, its position in the Muslim world. Unlike officially secular Indonesia, Malaysia is officially an Islamic country and has a history of leadership in organizations like the Organization for Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

The OIC is key venue that Uyghur activists and human rights advocates believe could help bring the Uyghur cause to attention in the Muslim world. In the past, the OIC has spoken out on issues of human rights in Palestine, Yemen, and even convened a meeting on the Rohingya crisis. But it has remained mostly silent on the Uyghurs since 2009. A statement or collective action from the body, which counts 57 member nations, could help bring what happening to Xinjiang to the forefront of the entire Muslim world.

There was a tantalizing glimpse of what an OIC response could look like in late January, when OIC Secretary-General Yousef Al-Othaimeen told a meeting of senior level officials that the organization “followed closely the reports on the status of Uyghur Muslims and I discussed the issue with Chinese officials.” Al-Othaimeen added that an OIC delegation “would visit to see the situation on the ground in the coming days.” That means the issue, in some form, is likely to be on the agenda at the next OIC Council of Foreign Ministers, scheduled for March 1 to 2 in the UAE. And on that front, Malaysia could be soon ready to act.

“Malaysia has a different view of its relationship with the Islamic world than Indonesia,” said Connelly. “I would be less surprised to see Malaysia go to the OIC than Indonesia, as it’s more consistent with how Malaysia has displayed its diplomacy and taken a harder line on Islamic world issues.”

Moreover, the Malaysian government has more political cover domestically due the fact that the ruling coalition has a strong representation of Chinese-Malaysians through the Democratic Action Party, the largest party in Pakatan Harapan.

“I think that gives them a little more license to push back on China,” said Connelly, noting that it was the ethnically Chinese finance minister who canceled the Chinese infrastructure projects.

What will be needed is more public pressure, believes Farouk.

“The pressure must come from civil society,” he said. His organization is working with other human rights groups to organize a seminar and they hope to have the prime minister or other high-level officials participate.

Even a Small Move Could Have a Big Impact

In the bigger picture, if either Indonesia or Malaysia begins to speak up on the Uyghur issue alongside Western countries, it could be the tipping point that forces China to change its policies. The response from the Chinese government and media so far is to paint news stories as a Western conspiracy, aimed at hurting the country’s economy. It would be harder to take that position if countries that Beijing sees as key partners and central to its massive Belt and Road Initiative begin to ask questions.

“I think that Indonesian and Malaysian pressure could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back and forces China to reduce the amount of pressure,” said Connelly. While he is doubtful that this could lead to an ideal situation for Uyghurs, it could result in less Uyghurs in the camps and more access to the region.

What will likely drive this is not leaders like Jokowi, Mahathir, or Anwar becoming suddenly inspired. It will be because Indonesians and Malaysians demand it. In Indonesia, that means watching to see if the Uyghurs become a campaign issue and whether the opposition pushes Jokowi to take more concrete action. In Malaysia, the question will be how effective civil society and media pressure is, and just how far Mahathir and Anwar want to take their role as leaders in the Islamic world.

Meanwhile, for the millions of Uyghurs toiling away in anonymity in re-education camps, any action cannot come quickly enough.

Nithin Coca is a freelance writer and journalist who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in developing countries. Follow him on Twitter 

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Chinese PM Calls on Cooperation With ASEAN Against US Meddling



Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks during a press conference with Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop at Parliament House in Canberra on February 7, 2017. AFP PHOTO/Mark Graham

The US is urged to comply with multilateralism, and to proceed with China-US relations in the right way; any unilateral move to crack down on other countries in order to defend its monopoly position is doomed to fail in a world where every member is closely connected, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said while holding a video meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers, emphasizing regional cooperation.

The video conference, held with Wang and foreign ministers from the 10 ASEAN states took place on Wednesday. Wang mentioned that the US’ overall denial of its decades-long policy toward China, its extreme attempts to smear China, and its constant crackdowns have all caused bilateral ties to nosedive.

Wang said that the dispute between Washington and Beijing is not a struggle for power, nor a battle of different systems, but whether to move forward with multilateralism or unilateralism, whether to promote win-win cooperation or a zero-sum competition.

Observers said such a torrent of criticism toward the US during meetings with ASEAN countries is a direct response to Washington’s frequent provocations in the South China Sea recently.

Observers noted that cooperation between China and ASEAN countries sets a model example for regional cooperation when the world is being challenged by rising unilateralist sentiment.

The recent frequent and high-level official exchanges between China and the ASEAN member countries have signaled that China is attaching increasing importance to improving ties with the bloc, said Gu Xiaosong, an expert on Southeast Asian studies at the Guangxi Academy of Social Sciences.

China and ASEAN have been successfully managing differences and gaining outstanding momentum in preventing and controlling the pandemic as well as boosting economic recovery. And such achievements would make the countries even more immune to noise from the outside, observers noted in a shared confident vision.

Last week, Harry Roque, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson, said the Philippines will not follow the US directive on sanctioning Chinese individuals and companies that are involved in the South China Sea.

Observers say the US keeps portraying China as a “hegemonic state” with China’s construction on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea.

US meddling in the South China Sea will eventually just be a “monodrama,” and few countries will follow Washington to stand against China, as choosing sides between Beijing and Washington won’t bring any benefit to ASEAN countries, Chen Xiangmiao, an assistant research fellow at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, told the Global Times.

Wang also said at the conference that China has no intention to seek hegemony, nor does it desire to take over the US. We will defend our sovereignty, safety and right to development, and at the same time, seek to communicate with the US, push it to adopt multilateralism and treat China-US relations with a rational attitude, said Wang.

Wang said China and ASEAN countries are devoted to implementing the Code of Conduct on the South China Sea (COC), explore in flexible ways regarding the code and effectively maintain stability in the South China Sea region.

Gu said the COC will be an institutional guarantee of regional stability and peaceful development, especially amid military provocations and political meddling from the US.

Despite global downward pressure, China-ASEAN trade and investment has witnessed remarkable growth. Chinese Ambassador to ASEAN Deng Xijun said that in the first half of this year, the trade in goods between China and ASEAN reached 2.09 trillion yuan ($298 billion), representing a 5.6 percent year-on-year increase.

ASEAN has overtaken the European Union to become China’s largest trading partner for the first time, showing strong resilience of China-ASEAN economic and trade relations and contributing to the recovery of the regional and global economy, Xinhua News Agency reported.

During the conference, Wang also stressed cooperation in the post-pandemic era. He said that once put into use, China would prioritize ASEAN countries’ need for a COVID-19 vaccine, and enhance sharing of information and R&D of the vaccines with those states.

Gu also made suggestions that China could strengthen pandemic support with ASEAN countries especially in the development and supply of a vaccine once it is put into practice, and implement Belt and Road initiative projects in ASEAN countries to render the effective investment in the region more effective and beneficial for the local economy. (Global Times)

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Regional Problems, Turkey-Iran Underline Importance of Relations in Solution



Iran's President, Hassan Rouhani, left, and Turkey's President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, hold a joint press conference in Ankara on Thursday. AP Photo

The dialogue between Turkey and Iran has a determinant role for the solution of a large number of regional problems, President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an said Tuesday, speaking during a High-Level Cooperation Council videoconference meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani.

“Turkey and Iran are two allies and two friendly countries,” Rouhani said during the meeting’s opening speech, “Our relations have always been established on strong grounds; we have historical relations. Therefore, even though we go through painful periods, our relations are not harmed. The relations of both countries stand on good neighborly relations, common cultural values, mutual respect and of course, mutual interests.”

Saying that Turkish-Iranian relations are significant for the region’s stability, Rouhani added: “The peoples of both countries have always supported peace and friendship. Both of our countries in the past and particularly in the past seven years have exerted efforts to further improve and reinforce our bilateral relations.”

“Iran and Turkey are located in the most sensitive area of the region,” he said, underlining that hostilities exist against both countries in the region.

Regretting that this year’s conference had to be held via videolink, Erdo?an stressed that showing the will to hold the meeting anyway despite the challenges brought by the coronavirus pandemic, was a strong message in itself.

“With the easing of the pandemic conditions, I believe our relations will once again reach previous levels. With the medical aid and equipment we provided to Iran during the initial times of the pandemic, we showed that we are by the side of the Iranian people,” the Turkish president said, highlighting that both countries would hopefully leave this pandemic behind stronger than before.

“I believe that the decisions we will take today will gain momentum for the issues of our current bilateral relations. Our ministers have a great duty in implementing these decisions,” Erdo?an added, saying that he wished to meet with the Iranian president in person as soon as the pandemic is over.

This is the sixth High-Level Cooperation Council meeting. The previous council meeting was held in 2018 in the capital Ankara. The Turkish-Iranian High Level Cooperation Council, which was established in 2014, has provided a structured basis to Turkish-Iranian relations.

Both parties in a declaration following the conference reiterated their determination to enhance good neighborly relations. They also emphasized closer consultation and cooperation in the fight against COVID-19 to ensure better preparedness in providing citizens with necessary medical services, medicines and equipment for prevention and activities related to the pandemic.

Turkey and Iran also renewed their commitment to intensify joint efforts to reverse the decrease in their bilateral trade volume by fully utilizing available mechanisms, such as the Joint Economic Commission, Joint Road Transport Committee, as well as devising new avenues of economic cooperation.

On the other side, stating that PKK and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) and all terrorist organizations in the region pose a common threat to the security of both Turkey and Iran, both sides emphasized the need to fully utilize the existing cooperation mechanisms against the activities of these terrorist organizations along the common borders. They also agreed to take coordinated steps for result-oriented cooperation, including joint operations, in countering terrorism and organized crime.

In its more than 40-year terror campaign against Turkey, the PKK, listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has been responsible for the deaths of nearly 40,000 people, including women and children.

Furthermore, the two countries also touched upon the Syrian civil war, where close cooperation is being observed. Turkey and Iran emphasized their strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria in line with all agreements in the framework of the Astana format. They also reaffirmed their conviction that the Syrian conflict could be resolved through political process in line with the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254.

Turkey, Iran and Russia initiated the Astana process to bring the warring sides in Syria together to find a permanent solution to the nine-year-long war. The main agenda items have been the constitutional system, the political transition, security and resettlement. The first meeting of the Astana process was held in Turkey in January 2017 to facilitate United Nations-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.

The issues of Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as well as Afghanistan were also discussed during the conference. Both countries expressed their unwavering support for a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reiterated the need for the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state having Quds (Jerusalem) as its capital.

Israel seized control of east Jerusalem in 1967 and later annexed it in highly controversial moves that are still not recognized by the international community. (Daily S


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