Asean eerily silent on Uighurs

Asean eerily silent on Uighurs

Following years of condemnation by human rights groups, and periodic criticism by a range of governments across the world, 22 mostly European and Western nations on July 8 co-signed a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council regarding China's ill-treatment of its Uighur population and other Muslim and minority communities in Xinjiang province.

In addition to calling upon the Chinese government to end the forcible detention of more than one million Uighurs, the letter stresses for China to "uphold its national laws and international obligations and to respect human rights". Despite being a long time coming, this letter publicly denouncing such flagrant rights abuses by the Chinese government must be welcomed.

Perhaps, unsurprisingly, just a few days later, a competing letter was also submitted to the Human Rights Council by 37 other countries, mostly from Africa and Middle East. This letter essentially sanctioned what China has persistently referred to as "vocation education and training centres". Interestingly, when looking at the list of countries that signed this second letter, most nations have woeful human rights records of their own. Including countries such as Somalia, Syria, Cambodia, Myanmar, the Philippines and North Korea, the signatories represent a who's who of states that routinely violate the rights of their own citizens. Similar to China's treatment of the Uighur minority, some common practices employed by these countries include political suppression, restrictions on movement, censorship of the media, intimidation, arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.

Out of Asean's 10 member states, three nations signed on to the second letter and defend China's "commitment to human rights". The other seven Asean states remained quiet. Sadly, despite Cambodia and the Philippines being the only two countries in Asean to have signed the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, they too felt compelled to sign on to the version that effectively whitewashes China's abominable practices.

Interestingly, while Malaysia was not a signatory to either letter, they have also been caught out using the propagandist language championed by the Chinese authorities. In fact, in a recent visit to Xinjiang by Malaysia's Religious Affairs Minister Mujahid Yusof Rawa, he publicly referred to visiting "a vocational and training institution". Amazingly, there was no mention of the forcible internment of over one million individuals. Thankfully however, during a visit to Turkey by Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad just last week, he did raise concerns for the Uighurs, stating that "we should tell China that please treat these people as citizens. The fact that they have a different religion should not influence the treatment towards them".

The seeming unwillingness or inability of almost all Asean nations to speak out against China's draconian policies is disappointing yet not unexpected. For the better part of the last decade, Southeast Asian governments have been strong-armed by China into remaining silent. This has included the forcible repatriation of Uighur refugees from inside their territory. Some notable examples of forced returns include: 20 refugees (including two children) deported from Cambodia in 2010, six refugees deported from Malaysia in 2013, 16 refugees (including two children) deported from Vietnam in 2014, and 109 refugees deported from Thailand in 2015. Many of these individuals were subject to harassment, intimidation, arrest and lengthy prison terms upon their return to China.

While Asean states have buried their heads in the sand up until now, these recent submissions to the Human Rights Council should act as a strong wake-up call. No longer can they sit on the sidelines pretending the problem does not exist. Instead, Asean states must join the coalition of nations that have taken the initiative to speak out against the ill-treatment of this persecuted minority. In addition, they must also ensure any Uighur inside their territory is provided with state protection and should not be returned to China unless under conditions of absolute safety, dignity and voluntariness. Refugees deemed in need of international protection should not be returned under any circumstances.

In Thailand, there are an estimated 49 Uighurs in detention in Songkhla and Sa Kaeo provinces. Detained for more than five years, they have been left by authorities to languish, perpetually fearful that they may be returned to China at any time. As the current chair of Asean, the spotlight is on Thailand to take a principled, humane and proactive approach towards the protection of Uighurs in Asean. Releasing these individuals from indefinite detention and allowing them to travel to third countries would showcase a commitment to supporting a population that has faced systematic discrimination and persecution by Chinese authorities.

The time for Asean nations such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand to address the issue of Uighur refugees is long overdue.

Whether it be via quiet diplomacy, overt demands as preconditions for cooperation with the One Belt One Road initiative, or via other avenues, Asean nations have the opportunity to demand improved treatment of Uighurs and other minorities in China.

As an initial step, each country can commit to providing Uighurs within their territory access to safety without fear of detention or deportation to China.

Despite Asean's less than impressive track record in protecting refugees, this is a unique opportunity for nations to step forward and showcase their commitment to refugee protection and human rights.

Evan Jones is programme coordinator at the Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network in Bangkok.

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