CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 7 September 2019

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Beijing’s big bucks muffle religious protest in Southeast Asia

Simon Roughneen 
 
A year ago the United States moved its embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, sparking protests in Muslim-majority countries and drawing official condemnation at the United Nations (UN).
 
An estimated 30,000 people demonstrated in Jakarta, Indonesia, as the president, Joko Widodo, said his country “rejects” the American move as it “may disrupt the peace process in Israel and Palestine.”
 
In late 2017, when the president of the United States (US), Donald Trump, announced he would live up to his campaign promise to move the embassy, the Malaysian government endorsed a huge protest at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, while Asia’s Muslim UN representatives lined up in New York to excoriate the US.
 
In contrast, the detention in mass camps of an estimated one million or more Muslims in Xinjiang in western China—described in late April by China’s foreign ministry as “preventive anti-terrorism and de-radicalisation measures” that “respect and protect human rights and have won extensive support from people of all ethnic groups in Xinjiang”—has prompted barely a murmur of complaint from Muslim-majority countries in Asia.
 
Likewise, China’s long-standing restrictions on Catholics and other Christians rarely incur any protest from the Philippines, the continent’s biggest Christian-majority country.
 
“It is disappointing that Southeast Asian countries have been silent about the more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang that the Chinese government has kept in detention under political indoctrination,” Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and board member of Association of Southeast Asian Nations Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said.
 
The association is a non-government entity made up mostly of opposition lawmakers from the region—though Santiago is from Malaysia’s governing Democratic Action Party.
 
Indonesia and Malaysia are home to minorities of Chinese descent that have been influential in business but have suffered not only discrimination and suspicion, but have suffered bouts of deadly political violence.
 
But since signing a free tree agreement with ASEAN a decade ago, China has surged ahead as the region’s biggest trade partner, though still lags somewhat when it comes to investment.
 
The 2018 ASEAN Investment Report showed that 8.2 per cent of all FDI (foreign direct investment) into the region in 2017 came from Chinese businesses, less than Japan’s share.
 
Investment is only likely to grow, however, under Beijing’s mammoth Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), an ongoing series of transport infrastructure projects aiming to link China to countries in Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
 
Most Southeast Asian countries need massive investment in infrastructure—Indonesia and the Philippines in particular, as both are scattered archipelagos lumbered with high transport costs.
 
Malaysia’s prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and Indonesia’s recently re-elected president, Widodo, have both met China’s president-for-life, Xi Jinping, over the last year to discuss trade and investment as Chinese projects ran into cost- and planning-related difficulties in both countries.
 
But despite the haggling, there has been no criticism of Beijing over the razing of mosques in Xinjiang and the mass incarcerations—though that has been the case for almost all Muslim-majority countries.
 
“To speak up for the Uyghurs is to go against your economic national interests. This is particularly glaring in the case of Saudi Arabia, the source of much of the funding for the revival of Islam in Xinjiang in the 1990s. Many of the mosques now being torn down were built with Saudi money,” Graeme Smith of the Department of Pacific Affairs at Australian National University, said.
 
Responding to criticism by some of the country’s leading Islamic clerics over the issue, Indonesia’s outgoing vice-president, Jusuf Kalla, said in December that his country would not interfere in the internal affairs of another country, echoing ASEAN’s long-standing “non-interference” mantra.
 
“Quite aside from the BRI, China is the major trading partner for most (Southeast Asian) nations, and Beijing has demonstrated a willingness to use economic coercion on smaller powers,” Smith, who co-hosts The Little Red Podcast, a monthly discussion of Chinese politics and society, said.
 
China’s turn to undergo the UN’s human rights-focused Universal Periodic Review (UPR) last November saw European and North American country representatives raise the issue of freedom of religion, specifically mentioning Xinjiang, which China brushed off as “politicised.”
 
Asian representatives were less abrasive, however, with Indonesia asking China to “continue to strengthen the development of laws and systems for protecting freedom of religion and beliefs,” while Bangladesh sought that Beijing “continue to promote participation, integration and sharing of development benefits with the people in vulnerable situations.”
 
Pakistan, however, backed Beijing’s claims about counter-terrorism, while Malaysia’s interventions were restricted to issues such as gender and mental health.
 
Before the UPR, however, Kuala Lumpur refused to extradite 11 Chinese Muslims who had escaped from China to Malaysia via Thailand, while in December 2018 a small protest at the Chinese embassy in Jakarta railed against the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang.
 
That protest was led by some of the same Islamist groups that demonstrated in 2016 against the Christian governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok). The Protestant politician of Chinese descent was later jailed for two years for blasphemy against Islam.
 
“As Muslim-majority nations and members of the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation, Malaysia and Indonesia, especially, should express solidarity with fellow Muslims by condemning China for its treatment of the Uyghurs,” Santiago said.

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