The prospects for China’s Uyghur Muslims are increasingly looking bleak. The 8 million ethnic Uyghurs living in the Xinjiang region have experienced discrimination by the Chinese government for many years. Hundreds of thousands of them have reportedly been imprisoned in concentration camps and undergone “re-education” by the Chinese government.
Others have been subject to forced labor. According to a 2020 report from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), 80,000 Uyghur workers who had been transferred from Xinjiang between 2017 and 2019 were transported there by train and labeled as having been “bought” or “sold” by government and commercial brokers. These workers were identified as having been employed to manufacture goods for well-known companies such as Apple, Uniqlo, Adidas, Nike, and Skechers.
Although there have been numerous reports of human rights violations against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang, many countries have also remained silent on this issue. Western media reports have also questioned where the voices of the world’s Muslim countries are. Among them is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, Indonesia, which, while being forthright in defending the rights of Muslims elsewhere in the world, has been seen as passive in defending the rights of Uyghur Muslims. Indeed, in this article, we will argue that Indonesia has contributed, and is contributing, to China’s persecution of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in two key respects.
Blocking Discussions at the U.N.
In October of last year, Indonesia was among the countries that rejected a motion seeking to discuss the Xinjiang situation at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Of the 47 countries that took part in the vote, 17 countries voted “yes” and 19 countries voted “no,” including Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Uzbekistan. Meanwhile, 11 countries abstained, including The Gambia, Libya, and Malaysia. The results of this vote have diminished hopes that the U.N. will deliver any kind of justice for the Uyghurs.
Many parties expressed regret at Indonesia’s vote. One was Dolkun Isa, the president of the World Uyghur Congress, who said that the countries that voted “no” had effectively supported China in committing genocide, while attacking Islam itself.
Greg Barton, a scholar at Deakin University in Australia, also commented that Indonesia’s attitude was not surprising, and credited it for not simply parroting the propaganda of the Chinese government. But he said that “it would have been good to see Indonesia being more bold.”
Indonesia justified its vote by saying that the members of the U.N. Human Rights Council that sat on the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) had pledged not to make the Council a vehicle for political competition, in this case between China and the West. Achsanul Habib, director of human rights and humanitarian affairs at the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, described the Council as an inclusive forum for countries to carry out dialogue that is impartial and non-selective in its approach to rights issues.
However, this reasoning clashes with the OIC Charter, which calls for its members to safeguard the rights, dignity, and religious and cultural identity of Muslim and minority communities in non-member countries. Indonesia in this case is also known for providing support to Rohingya Muslims and fighting for Palestinian independence. Its silence about the Uyghurs, therefore, seems to ignore the substance of the OIC Charter itself.
Returning Uyghur Refugees to China
The second way that Indonesia has abetted the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang is by returning Uyghur refugees to China.
On July 1, 2022, an Uyghur named Ahmet Bozoglan was found to have been released from prison for his alleged involvement in terrorist activities in Poso, Central Sulawesi. After being released, Bozoglan was also informed that he was being deported. Reinhard Silitonga, director General of Corrections at the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, said that he could not confirm the destination, but it was almost certainly China.
In 2014, Bozoglan and three of his fellow Uyghurs came to Indonesia disguised as Turkish citizens. Not long after, in September of that year, they were caught in possession of forged passports. Police claim that the group intended to join the East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT) militant group in Poso. MIT is known to be affiliated with the Islamic State.
However, Bozoglan claimed that he was a victim of human traffickers, who he contacted in an attempt to flee from Xinjiang to Turkey, but who transported him against his wishes to Indonesia. The truth remains unclear. If it is true that these Uyghurs wanted to join an Islamic extremist group, they needn’t have traveled all the way to Indonesia, when Afghanistan is much closer at hand.
Whatever the truth, in 2015, the group was tried and sentenced to six years in prison. Bozoglan submitted an appeal to the panel of judges, but this was rejected and his sentence was increased to eight years or a fine of 100 million rupiah. Three of Bozoglan’s colleagues were released in 2020 after China paid the fines on their behalf, while Bozoglan was released in 2022 after serving his full sentence.
After Bozoglan’s fellows’ release in 2020, they were deported back to China in secret, on a flight chartered by the Chinese government. The same fate most likely befell Bozoglan.
There have been many criticisms of Indonesia for permitting the deportation of the Uyghurs to China, where rights activists say they are very likely to receive treatment such as torture, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and other serious human rights violations.
Andreas Harsono, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who accompanied the four Uyghurs during their trial, also expressed concerns for the fate of these individuals.
“They should not have been deported to China because they will most likely be executed. We don’t believe the legal system there is fair,” he told BenarNews. “We have conveyed this to the Indonesian government, but there has been no answer.”
Indonesia is not the only country that has sent Uyghurs back to China, of course. More than 300 Uyghurs are confirmed to have been forcibly returned from 16 different countries in the past 20 years, a figure that doesn’t include those who were returned in secret.
The biggest factor behind Indonesia’s vacillating Uyghur policy is that it is increasingly reliant on China for aid and development. China is now Indonesia’s largest trading partner and investor, including as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. During the COVID-19 pandemic, China also became Indonesia’s largest supplier of vaccines. This has made Jakarta reluctant to voice any criticism of Beijing’s policies in Xinjiang.
The country has also likely been influenced by China’s Islamic diplomacy, which has engaged with Islamic mass organizations and students in Indonesia in order to shift public opinion against the Uyghurs. China has also approached Indonesian Muslim influencers who are active in preaching on social media platforms to spread misinformation and denials that large-scale rights abuses are taking place in Xinjiang.
By voting against a motion to discuss the Xinjiang situation at the U.N. Human Rights Council Indonesia was effectively voting “yes” to China’s commitment to human rights violations against the Uyghur minority. The country has clearly failed to maintain its credibility and solidarity in supporting fellow Muslims.
It is also regrettable that it has deported Uyghurs back to China knowing that they will be persecuted. The Uyghurs were not proven to have committed any terror crimes, and even if they had, Bozoglan and his friends had served their sentences, which should have been sufficient reason for Indonesia to protect them and allow them to remain in Indonesia.
Indonesia, as the largest Muslim-majority nation in the country and the leading figure in the Human Rights Council, should work more to defend the rights of the Uyghurs, lest it damages its image as a defender of the world’s Muslims beyond repair.