Why Indonesia’s muted response to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur internment camps is in stark contrast to anger over Rohingya crisis

  • A new report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict says some Indonesians and Islamic groups see the reports of religious persecution as Western propaganda aimed at denigrating China
  • The government of President Joko Widodo is also worried that taking a more vocal stance would embolden the country’s influential Islamic right
Topic | Xinjiang

Resty Woro Yuniar



The Chinese flag flies over a mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang. Photo: AFP

Indonesia’s muted response to China’s mass internment of ethnic Uygurs and Muslim minorities in Xinjiang is not due solely to fears of offending its top trading partner, but stems from a mix of reasons including scepticism about allegations of human rights abuses, a new report suggests.

Some Indonesians and Islamic groups see the reports of religious persecution as Western propaganda aimed at denigrating China while it is locked in a trade dispute with the United States, and the government worries whether taking a more vocal stance would embolden the Islamic right that has become more influential in domestic politics.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo. Photo: AFP

The report, published by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict think tank on Thursday, quotes Dr Munajat Stain, a senior aide to President Joko Widodo as saying: “We did not want to engage in their [Uygur persecution] narrative because it would only empower the Islamists and radicals belonging to the opposition.”

“Our diplomatic problems with China are not because of this. They are because of China’s encroachment in the South China Sea and destabilisation of Southeast Asia’s regional security – not the Uygurs.”

The 17-page document delves into the reasons that the human rights crisis in Xinjiang, which reportedly has the US government ready to punish China with sanctions, has caused “little angst” in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

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This lack of concern from Jakarta sits in stark contrast to its decisive action two years ago when the Rohingya Muslim refugee crisis escalated in Myanmar. At that time, Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi met Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi and proposed ways the latter could ensure humanitarian aid and protection when conflict in Rakhine state forced close to 90,000 Rohingya to flee across the border to Bangladesh.

In the case of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang though, Jakarta sees Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs as a “legitimate response to separatism” and is not inclined to interfere in domestic issues since it would not take kindly to China doing the same, given that Indonesia faces a separatist movement of its own in the easternmost province of Papua, the report said.

Furthermore, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organisations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah have been on the receiving end of Beijing’s “skilful diplomacy”, with their leaders visiting Xinjiang and accepting assurances that China is protecting religious freedoms, according to the report.

“The hundreds of Indonesian Muslims studying in China by and large have a positive experience, contributing to an unwillingness to acknowledge serious restrictions on religious practice,” the report said.

Addressing the report, Wahid Ridwan, Muhammadiyah’s secretary of international relations, said that Chinese diplomats had met representatives of the organisation and given their assurances about the Uygur’s religious freedoms.

“They also said not to believe international coverage, especially that published by American organisations,” Ridwan said. “They told us not to believe the report that there are Muslim concentration camps in Xinjiang and to believe China that those are part of their effort to moderate the [Muslims separatists] … they were being very diplomatic about it.”

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Up to 1 million Uygurs and other Muslims are being detained in Xinjiang, according to the United Nations, in what Beijing describes as vocational training centres designed to counter extremism. Activists say the region is more like an open prison, with extensive mass surveillance used to crack down on the inhabitants’ practice of Islam.

Last September, Chinese officials invited Muhammadiyah’s senior leaders to Beijing, with representatives of Nahdlatul Ulama making a similar visit two years before that, the report said. China also offered a guided tour of Xinjiang in February this year, where delegations from both Indonesian organisations were shown that Muslims in the far western region were free to pray and study.

“Their largely positive experience, as filtered back to the leadership, reinforced the impression that the Xinjiang issue was primarily about secession, not religion, and Western allegations of human rights violations should therefore be treated with some scepticism,” the report said.

Muhammadiyah followers listen to a speech in Yogyakarta. Photo: AFP

However, the Muhammadiyah delegation reported back to their colleagues in Jakarta, including Ridwan, that they had not been able to interact with any ordinary people during the tour.

“I got the report that they did not talk much to ordinary Uygur Muslims there although our delegation could do Friday prayer and visit the mosques. The tour was great but it did not answer the problem [of alleged human rights abuse in Xinjiang] … there was no dialogue with the Muslims there,” Ridwan said.

In December, Nahdlatul Ulama Chairman Said Aqil Siraj told reporters that his organisation was ready to be a “mediator” between the Chinese government and Uygur Muslims, after meeting China’s ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian.

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But he made clear that Jakarta should not interfere with China’s internal affairs. “Just like us, we don’t want other countries to interfere with insurgencies in Aceh or Papua,” Siraj said.

Indonesia’s domestic politics have also informed its response to Xinjiang, according to the report, which alluded to social media hoaxes spread by the opposition during the recent elections aimed at discrediting Widodo by saying he is of Chinese descent and a communist.

“Their use of the Uygur issue as a cudgel to attack Jokowi for being pro-China and anti-Muslim has only added to the unwillingness of moderates and Jokowi supporters to be drawn into the fray. To suddenly take a strong position in defence of the Uygurs could be seen as capitulating to pressure from the religious right,” the report said, referring to the Indonesian president by his nickname.

Rohingya refugees gather near a fence in the ‘no man's land’ zone between Myanmar and Bangladesh. Photo: AFP

While China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner and second largest investor, its economic importance was not a key factor in informing Jakarta’s response to the Uygur issue, according to the report.

Yeremia Lalisang, an international relations lecturer at the University of Indonesia who spent five years studying in China, said the situation in Xinjiang was not as visible to Indonesians as the persecution of Rohingya Muslims.

“The government wanted to confirm the reports about the treatment of Uygur Muslims in Xinjiang before making the proper response,” he said.

“And there might be a domestic politics factor played into it, we are naive if we say that it does not influence the government response.”

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Lalisang, who doubts Western media reports about alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang, said that he had heard from fellow Indonesians who are studying in China that “Muslims’ relations with the Chinese are fine, whether in Xi’an, Xinjiang, or Ningxia”.

“But if we’re talking about separatism, I believe that there are repressive actions taken by the Chinese government because there is a real terrorism threat there,” he said.

Human rights in China
Religion in China
Human rights
US-China relations
Rohingya Muslims
Aung San Suu Kyi
Resty Woro Yuniar is a Jakarta-based journalist who specialises in technology and business
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