Indonesia’s Opposition Takes Up the Uighur Cause

China's internment camps for Muslims have become a political talking point.

Acehnese Muslims demonstrate against China’s oppression of ethnic Uighurs at Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on Dec. 21, 2018. (Riau Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)
Acehnese Muslims demonstrate against China’s oppression of ethnic Uighurs at Baiturrahman Mosque in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on Dec. 21, 2018. (Riau Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

“Xinjiang, what a wonderful place,” declared an op-ed by China’s ambassador to Indonesia, Xiao Qian, published by the Jakarta Post last September. Xiao extolled the virtues of the region’s “mutual respect, solidarity and harmony among ethnic groups,” a place where Beijing has been accused of committing cultural genocide against Uighur Muslims.

The detention of a million or more Uighurs has made headlines around the world, but the liberal media in Indonesia has given the issue very soft treatment. That’s partially because of a deliberate propaganda effort by China to target Indonesian journalists—and partially because of domestic politics in the world’s largest Muslim nation.

The government of Indonesia has also remained conspicuously reserved, even in the face of China unveiling plans to “Sinicize Islam.” Vice President Jusuf Kalla has asserted that Jakarta has no intention to interfere with Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in China. China is Indonesia’s largest trading partner, with figures from the Indonesian Ministry of Trade showing that two-way trade jumped 25 percent to $66 billion during the first 11 months of 2018.

In 2017, China overtook Japan to become the second-largest investor behind only Singapore. Chinese and Hong Kong investment that year was worth $5.5 billion. Given that some Chinese investment flows through proxy companies in Singapore or elsewhere, Indonesia’s Investment Coordinating Board said in 2016 that it thought China was already the largest investor in the archipelago.

Indonesia’s “independent and active” foreign-policy doctrine means that it has long emphasized “engaging with all sides and being aligned with none,” said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, a research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences in Jakarta. But in other cases, Indonesia has had no trouble speaking up for persecuted Muslims. Support for Palestinians has been a pillar of Indonesian foreign policy since the first Asia-Africa conference in Bandung in 1955, while the Joko “Jokowi” Widodo administration has been assertive with Myanmar in defense of the Rohingya, a rare breach of the principle of noninterference touted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

“The Chinese government must distinguish between Uighur Muslims involved in a separatist dispute with the Chinese state and those who are not involved in the rebellion, which is a majority of Uighur Muslims,” said Masduki Baidlowi, the head of communications for the conservative Indonesian Ulama Council, which has publicly requested in vain that the president take a tough stance.

In the run-up to Indonesia’s national elections in April—the first time presidential and parliamentary polls will be held on the same day—opponents of the incumbent Jokowi have taken up the plight of the Uighurs as a rallying cry. Aaron Connelly, a research fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore, said that “every foreign-policy issue is viewed through a domestic prism” in Indonesia, providing fodder for “an almost tribal feud between supporters of Islamist movements and more secular Indonesians.”

Islamist politics and the activist or vigilante groups that espouse them have historically been marginal in Indonesia but are enjoying an uptick in mainstream relevance amid growing conservatism among many Muslims. Opponents of Jokowi have attacked his perceived lack of Muslim piety since the 2014 presidential campaign, then claiming he was secretly ethnically Chinese, Christian, and a communist. His selection of the 75-year-old conservative cleric Maruf Amin as his running mate for 2019 is seen by many as an attempt to bolster the camp’s religious credentials.

Hundreds of pro-Uighur protesters outside the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta in December, mostly members of hard-line Muslim groups, also expressed their desire to #2019GantiPresiden (meaning, change the president in 2019). “As the country with the largest Muslim population, Indonesia should have significant bargaining power to address such humanitarian tragedy,” said Irawan Ronodipuro, a foreign-policy spokesman for the opposition candidate Prabowo Subianto, arguing that the president’s failure to speak out on the Uighur issue is “proof China holds Jokowi hostage.”

While the 32-year Suharto regime virtually outlawed Chinese culture and language, a select few ethnic Chinese businesspeople benefited from cronyism and patronage, establishing racist stereotypes of Chinese Indonesians as greedy and clannish. Today, a majority of Forbes’s 50 richest Indonesians are ethnic Chinese.

“Most of the petty traders in Indonesia belong to Islamic groups that most directly feel the impacts of cheap Chinese imports. They were and continue to be strongly anti-communist,” Anwar said.

Communism remains hugely taboo in Indonesia, where up to a million alleged communists were slaughtered in 1965-1966, effectively eliminating the political left. “These groups naturally feel a lot of sympathy for the Uighurs, who are being persecuted for practicing their Islamic faith,” Anwar added.

Many supporters of the president, meanwhile, have played down the issue. There is a “willful ignorance on the part of Jokowi and his supporters,” Connelly said, who “see it as a cynical political movement meant to demonstrate that Jokowi is not a good Muslim, as opposed to a serious human rights issue that they should confront.” Several figures from the president’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle did not respond to Foreign Policy’s requests for comment.

Calvin Ho, an ethnic Chinese Indonesian master’s student in Beijing, said even most Muslim Indonesian exchange students in China are largely uncritical of the treatment of Uighurs. “There is very rarely interaction with local Muslims because of language barriers,” he said. “From this video, we can see President Xi Jinping visiting and respecting Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang,” one Indonesian Ph.D. candidate studying in China posted on Facebook, sharing a Chinese state propaganda video. “We Muslims are just fine here.” Back home, where hoaxes and fake news are rampant and widely believed, many on social media have claimed that the Uighurs’ persecution is a U.S.-backed Western media conspiracy.

“Indonesia’s sovereignty is threatened. The nation is colonized once more,” said Ronodipuro, referring to Indonesia’s growing economic reliance on China under the Jokowi administration. The government has indeed actively courted Chinese investment for some of the hundreds of projects planned under its ambitious $323 billion infrastructure push—the cornerstone of Jokowi’s developmentalist agenda. This includes the Jakarta-Bandung high-speed rail project, which the Prabowo camp has criticized for its use of Chinese labor.

“Southeast Asian governments, including Indonesia, are in a dilemma because they have a strong economic cooperation with the Chinese government [and so cannot be critical of Beijing], unlike the way the Indonesian government played a role during the crisis in Rakhine State,” said Usman Hamid, Executive Director of Amnesty Indonesia.

“Without China, the Indonesian economy will be sluggish, and it will clearly create a negative domino effect, such as a lack of available jobs,” Ho said.

Human rights groups in Indonesia have also avoided campaigning on the Uighur issue, likely for fear of reigniting latent hatred against ethnic Chinese Indonesians. “Most Indonesians do a poor job of distinguishing between the People’s Republic of China and Indonesians of Chinese heritage,” Connelly of IISS said. “They [rights groups] are sincerely worried that if anti-Beijing sentiment increases in Indonesia … this will result in persecution of Chinese Indonesians and even violence.”

In a chaotic period before the former dictator Suharto stepped down in 1998, anti-Chinese pogroms in Jakarta and other major urban centers killed thousands of people, saw widespread rape, and caused millions of dollars in property damage. The specter of anti-Chinese racism again appeared during the 2017 gubernatorial race in Jakarta, in which the ethnic Chinese Christian incumbent, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, was targeted by hard-line Muslim groups, which succeeded in seeing him defeated at the polls and jailed for blasphemy on a wave of anti-minority sentiment.

Hamid said human rights activists in Jakarta this month hosted Uighur leaders to discuss the issue but did not publicly advertise the event or inform the media over fears of an anti-Chinese backlash.

Defending Uighurs would also highlight Indonesia’s own heavy-handed attempts to contain a separatist movement in resource-rich West Papua. “Indonesians talk about rowing between two reefs between the two great powers and [have] been hesitant to criticize either great power,” Connelly said. “This tendency is amplified by the fact that Indonesia demands that foreign countries not interfere in its own domestic affairs, particularly in the suppression of separatist groups.”

According to Hamid, “What happens in Papua and Xinjiang have so many similarities: the existence of separatist movements, the way population demography has shifted. … Over time, Uighur have become minorities in a region where they are supposed to be the majority.”

Anwar said, “If the human rights abuses remain in the news, we can expect more public demonstrations against China in Indonesia, which will put pressure on the government to show its support for Uighurs more openly.”

While the opposition has made hay of the issue, it may change its tone once in government. Despite Prabowo’s tough rhetoric, Connelly said any government led by him would be unlikely to seriously confront China over the Uighur issue. It is likely that Prabowo would “reason that it is not in his interest to take on either of the great powers when there are other targets that are more vulnerable that will allow him to demonstrate his nationalist credentials—particularly Singapore.”

Hamid agrees. “Given the origin of Prabowo in big business and Suharto’s circle, I don’t think [he] can easily take a critical stance against China, given the fact that China has been growing its grip not only in Southeast Asia but globally,” he said.

Max Walden is a PhD candidate at Melbourne Law School and writer on human rights and migration in Asia.