Why are Central Asian countries so quiet on Uighur persecution?

After Pompeo urged leaders to condemn crackdown, experts say Beijing’s clout in the region is too strong to resist.

A woman is pictured beside a propaganda painting showing soldiers meeting with a Uighur family, outside a military hospital near Kashgar in China's northwest Xinjiang region [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

To Arslan Hidayat, the reluctance of Central Asian governments to lambast or even address China‘s persecution of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities is all about Beijing’s investments.

“For [these governments], all of this is a matter of economics,” the 32-year-old ethnic Uighur activist, whose parents fled China after Mao Zedong’s death to settle in Australia, told Al Jazeera.

According to rights groups, witnesses and relatives of alleged victims, at least a million Muslims, mostly Uighurs, in China’s western Xinjiang province have been incarcerated and indoctrinated in overcrowded “re-education” camps, while Beijing turns their home into a digital dystopia, where every walk of life, on and offline, is strictly monitored. 

Uighur and other Muslim organisations claim that hundreds of thousands have been subjected to torture, sterilisation and rape in the camps.

China denies wrongdoing, saying its measures are not a form of systemic discrimination but an effort to curb “terrorism”.

China's considerable investments and trade ties have chained the Central Asian states to Beijing.

by Alisher Ilkhamov, programme officer at the Open Society Foundations

Hidayat, whose father-in-law spent almost a year in a “reeducation camp” and whose closest friends are still there, said even though some Uighur rights groups operate in Central Asia, “the best that they could get is silence from the governments.”

The language, culture, music and cuisine of more than 10 million Uighurs are rooted in Turkestan, a historical region of steppes and deserts half the size of the United States, divided into what is now Central Asia and Xinjiang by imperial China and Russia.

Hundreds of thousands of Uighurs live in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan after their forefathers fled China in several waves since Beijing cracked down on Muslim revolts in the 1860s.

Even larger numbers of Kazakh and Kyrgyz nomads traversed in the opposite direction after Communist Moscow forced them to settle on collective farms.

But experts and activists said these ties mean little to the governments of modern-day Central Asia that have received tens of billions of dollars in Beijing’s investments and loans. 

Pompeo’s failure

To the top US diplomat, the rights of Chinese Muslims seemed like a perfect rallying cry to unite these governments behind Washington.

“In my private meetings today, I plan to discuss the Chinese Communist Party’s repression of Uighur Muslims, Kazakhs, and members of other minority groups in Xinjiang,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital, on February 3. 

The meetings he referred to were face-to-face discussions with each foreign minister of the five “stans.” Three of these nations – Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan – are home to sizable Uighur diasporas.

In response, Pompeo’s Uzbek counterpart appeared to dismiss the concerns.

“We would really not like to feel on ourselves the unfavourable political consequences related to the competition in our region between large powers,” Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov told the US official.

The powers are Washington, Moscow and Beijing; the latter has already grown into Central Asia’s financial hegemon, analysts say.

“China’s considerable investments and trade ties have chained the Central Asian states to [Beijing],” London-based expert Alisher Ilkhamov, programme manager with the Open Society Eurasia Program, told Al Jazeera. 

Selective silence

Even testimony of former reeducation camp inmates, collected by human rights groups, were not enough to convince regional leaders. 

“Many reports by international rights groups don’t reflect reality,” Kazakh President Qassym-Jomart Tokayev told the German broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, in early December. 

Some 250,000 Uighurs live in Kazakhstan, which shares a border with China, but Uighurs and ethnic Kazakhs fleeing persecution encounter difficulties seeking asylum, activists claim.

“It is very difficult, one can say, impossible” to seek asylum in Kazakhstan, said Leila Adilzhan of the Ata-Jurt rights group, which documents the plight of Chinese Muslims and provides legal help to refugees.

Sayragul Sauytbay, an ethnic Kazakh woman from Xinjiang, faced deportation after crossing into Kazakhstan in 2018 without documents, with her family.

After Ata-Jurt intervened, a Kazakh court overruled the deportation order, but they were denied asylum, even though her husband was a Kazakh national. They left for Sweden last June.

While Ata-Jurt fights for every applicant, many refugees do not get in touch with rights groups and are deported.

“We don’t know how many refugees have been secretly returned,” Adilzhan said.

Pressuring activists

Last year, the head of Ata-Jurt and Adilzhan’s husband, a China-born Kazakh named Serikzhan Bilash, was arrested and charged with “interethnic hatred”.

He said he was forced to agree that he would abandon issues relating to Chinese Muslims and then released.

In November, border guards in neighbouring Uzbekistan deported Gene Bunin, a Russian-American scholar of the Uighur language who runs Shahit.biz, an online collection of testimony of thousands of Chinese Muslims.

“I am a hundred percent sure it is connected to my work,” Bunin reportedly said. 

In impoverished, mountainous Kyrgyzstan, where some 50,000 Uighurs have lived for decades and whose government heavily relies on trade with China and Beijing’s loans, some Uighurs claim they are being watched by security services.

“When we celebrate a holiday or attend a wedding, we only talk about business, family or friends because politics is not something Uighurs in [the Kyrgyz capital] Bishkek want to discuss,” a Uighur trader told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity in 2017.

A string of rallies against China’s policies in Xinjiang were held in Kyrgyzstan in recent months, and police fined dozens of protesters.

One of them was arrested for two months in late January and reportedly charged with “inciting interethnic hatred”.

Some Uighur activists warn that with its loans, investments, infrastructure projects and political backing, Beijing will gradually take over Central Asia, parts of which used to belong to China since the inception of the Great Silk Road two millennia ago.

Salih Hudayar, who heads the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement, a Washington-based group, compared the economic takeover of the region to the way Communist China has been subjugating Xinjiang since 1949.

“Slowly, they chipped away our independence buying our leaders, and here we are today,” he told Al Jazeera.

“In the long run, [the Central Asian governments] will too become like us, they will lose their independence in favour of some small economic benefits.”

Source: Al Jazeera