Indonesia will not interfere in Chinese domestic affairs, President Joko Widodo’s chief of staff said Monday, amid pressure on Jakarta to speak up against the mass internment of minority ethnic Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang province.
The comments from Moeldoko, a former commander of the armed forces, came as peaceful protests sprang across Indonesia, the world’s largest majority Islamic country, and in neighboring Malaysia, with demonstrators calling for freedom for the nearly 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims held in Xinjiang camps.
“Each country has its own sovereignty to regulate its citizens,” Moeldoko told reporters in Jakarta when asked why Indonesia was not more vocal about the Uyghur issue. “The Indonesian government won’t interfere in the domestic affairs of China.”
China began locking up an estimated 1.8 million Uyghurs and other minority Muslims in a vast network of internment camps since April 2017 over accusations that members of these groups harbored “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas.
Beijing’s ambassador to Jakarta Xiao Qian met with Moeldoko last week, after which he denied allegations of rights abuses in Xinjiang.
The meeting came amid renewed attention to the issue in Indonesia after a U.S. newspaper reported earlier this month that Beijing had launched a “concerted campaign” to convince Indonesia’s religious authorities and journalists that the Xinjiang camps were a “well-meaning effort” to provide job training.
Xiao said after meeting Moeldoko that reports about rights violations in Xinjiang were false, as he invited Indonesians to visit the province to see for themselves the situation in the autonomous region.
“Problems in Xinjiang are similar to those in other countries. This is part of our efforts to fight radicalism and terrorism,” Xiao told reporters after the meeting in Jakarta.
On Sunday, about 100 people chanted slogans and carried signs that said “Save the Uyghurs,” during a protest rally in Banda Aceh, capital of Sharia-ruled Aceh province, according to BenarNews photographers.
Hundreds of protesters also gathered outside the Chinese embassy in Jakarta on Friday and chanted “God is Great” and “Get out, communists!” as they demanded an end to mass detentions of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang.
In Malaysia’s Kajang town in southeastern Selangor state, dozens of demonstrators held placards and marched during a “silent protest” on Saturday as they expressed their support for the Uyghurs.
The participants, some of whom had plastered their mouths with tape to symbolize the alleged censorship suffered by the Muslims in Xinjiang, urged passing vehicles to blast their horns in support of the demonstration. It took place at the entrance of a convention center where the Chinese embassy had organized the “Beautiful Xinjiang Cultural Show.”
On Thursday, Mohammad Mahfud, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, told reporters that he had conveyed to Xiao some of the concerns voiced by Indonesian Muslim groups about the treatment of the Uyghurs.
“Our diplomacy is soft diplomacy. We do not interfere, but we look at things objectively,” Mahfud said.
“We are mediating and looking for the best solution, not confrontational,” he said.
Meanwhile, the top Islamic jurist in Malaysia’s Perlis state urged Muslim countries to initiate a boycott of Chinese products over the detention of the Uyghurs.
Mohamad Asri bin Zainul Abidin said political and religious leaders from the Muslim world should exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on Beijing for its treatment and alleged human rights abuse of the minority Muslim group living in its westernmost province.
“We need to go to the extent of boycotting China's products. They know the strength of our purchasing power,” Asri told Al Jazeera on Friday on the sidelines of a summit of mainly majority-Muslim countries in Kuala Lumpur.
“The decision should be taken at the highest levels of Muslim countries and the ulama [religious scholars and guardians]” to address the Uighur issue, he said.
Last week, Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament for the ruling coalition, urged Muslim leaders attending the summit in Kuala Lumpur to discuss the mass incarceration of Uyghurs.
But Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who hosted the four-day, top-level meeting from Dec 18-21 indicated that it did not discuss the plight of the Uyghurs.
“In the first place, this conference is about improving the situation in Muslim countries,” Mahathir told reporters.
“It is not directed at other countries because we don’t expect other countries to take our advice and not do things which are bad for the Muslim countries,” he said. “That is the purpose of this conference and we didn't single out many of the instances where wrong things were done to many Muslims and Muslim countries.”
Departure from previous stance
Last week, Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations – Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah – called on China to end human rights violations against the Uyghurs, in a departure from their previous muted stance.
Rights groups have accused Beijing of trying to erase Uyghur’s culture, language and religious traditions. But Chinese officials have repeatedly denied those allegations, while refusing to allow international observers into the camps that supposedly provide vocational training for the minority Muslims.
A report in June by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) had said Indonesia was reluctant to speak out on the Uyghur issue because the nation rejected interfering in China’s affairs.
“The Indonesian government by and large sees the Uyghur crackdown as a legitimate response to separatism, and it will no more interfere in China’s ‘domestic affairs’ than it would accept Chinese suggestions for how it should deal with Papua,” IPAC said, referring to a long-running conflict in far-eastern Indonesia, for which Jakarta has been repeatedly accused of committing rights abuses.
Though Beijing initially denied the existence of internment camps, China has tried to change the discussion, describing the facilities as “boarding schools” that provide vocational training for Uyghurs, discourage radicalization and help protect the country from terrorism.
Muzliza Mustafa contributed to this report from Kuala Lumpur.