It was recently reported that Thailand is seeking Putrajaya’s cooperation to extradite more than a dozen Uighurs who may have slipped into Malaysia after having escaped from detention facilities there. They are part of some 200 Uighurs in detention in Thailand awaiting deportation.
An oppressed minority
The Uighurs, an ancient Muslim community with deep roots in Xinjiang province, have long suffered oppression and discrimination. In recent years, thousands of people from other parts of China have been brought into Xinjiang in an effort to alter the demographic composition of the province to the detriment of the native Uighur population.
China has also effectively used the on-going war on terrorism as a pretext to further isolate and persecute the Uighurs. Opponents of Bejing’s heavy-handed rule are routinely branded as terrorists or “aspiring terrorists” and hunted down. Ilham Tohti, a secular professor and blogger, for example, was sentenced to life in prison in 2014 for arguing that it is Beijing’s harsh and repressive policies that are stoking radicalisation.
While some Uighurs have undoubtedly found common cause with Islamic terrorist groups, the vast majority are simply a disaffected and oppressed minority struggling to survive under appalling conditions. Many are also fleeing in the hope of finding refuge elsewhere.
Malaysia’s shameless treatment of refugees
Those who end up in Malaysia in the mistaken assumption that they might find favour in a majority Muslim country quickly end up disappointed.
Malaysia, quite shamefully, has a sordid history of ill-treating refugees and asylum seekers. The Home Ministry often plays along with the charade that all Uighurs are terrorists and quickly deports them without due process in order not to offend China. Many of those deported face torture and even death in their homeland.
Earlier this year, for example, Malaysia deported 29 so-called Uighur “terrorists” to China at the request of the Chinese government.
In fact, going by recent remarks by the Minister of Home Affairs, China is providing equipment to Malaysia to help track, apprehend and deport Chinese dissidents who try to find refuge in or transit through Malaysia. It is a troubling development, one of the hidden costs of our dependence on cheap Chinese loans to fuel dubious mega-projects.
And the Uighurs are not alone. Several Turkish nationals who ran afoul of the increasingly despotic regime of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan were rounded up and deported back to Turkey as was Hamza Kashgari, a Saudi national fleeing charges of blasphemy.
Clearly, Putrajaya is willing to even trample on internationally accepted human rights laws simply to ingratiate itself with foreign governments no matter how despotic they are.
Hype and hypocrisy
Putrajaya, of course, likes to pretend that it is a great champion of human rights, especially when it involves Muslims. When it is politically expedient, Putrajaya waxes eloquent about oppressed and persecuted groups like the Rohingya but it’s mostly hype and hypocrisy.
They are quick to organize big rallies to champion the plight of the Rohingya to burnish their Islamic credentials but shy away from the real challenge of building sustained and comprehensive approaches that alone can save the Rohingya from the genocidal policy of Myanmar’s military.
The Rohingya issue has, after all, been decades in the making. Thousands have fled to Malaysia mostly to suffer yet further hardship and persecution. Like other Myanmar refugees, they have been trafficked, abused, and condemned to live in the shadows. Some have even ended up in mass graves. Reports suggest that systematic human trafficking is going on but there never seems to be the political will to stop such heinous activity.
Putrajaya also appears to be very outspoken when it comes to confronting Myanmar over its human rights abuses involving Muslims but is spineless when it comes to Muslims from countries like China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
As well, it is willing to go to great lengths to defend the rights of fugitives like Zakir Naik who has been condemned by a number of different countries for his extremist views but is unwilling to defend the rights of Muslim Uighurs fleeing persecution in their homeland or peaceful Turkish residents in Malaysia from the wrath of President Erdoğan. It is even willing to consider asylum for corrupt and murdeous despots like Robert Mugabe but cannot find place for a few persecuted Uighurs.
Respecting international human rights
Thailand’s request to apprehend and return Uighurs who might have entered Malaysia is a timely reminder that our country needs a just and compassionate refugee policy. Genuine refugees and asylum seekers, irrespective of their religious or ethnic background, should be given sanctuary and safety in Malaysia.
Asylum seekers in particular should be entitled to a fair hearing before deportation requests are acceded to. Those with proven links to terrorism should, of course, be deported while those who are simply fleeing political persecution or oppression should be protected, even at the cost of upsetting other governments.
Until we do, few will regret that Malaysia failed in its bid for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council; the world doesn’t need another cheerleader for despotic regimes on that already tarnished council.
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.