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Why Uighurs did not get support from West Asia?

Dr Prasanta Kumar Pradhan is Research Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for profile
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  • July 24, 2009

    The recent clashes that occurred between the Uighur Muslims and the Han Chinese workers in a toy factory and the subsequent spread of violence throughout the Xinjiang Uighur region have elicited strong responses from around the world. The clashes led to the death of over 184 people and left hundreds injured. The issue has also drawn world attention for the way it has been handled by the Chinese government.

    Nevertheless reactions from West Asian countries have been surprisingly muted. The country which is at the forefront of the international condemnation against the suppression of the Uighurs is Turkey for the obvious reason that Uighurs are of Turkic origin. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the Chinese crackdown as “genocide” of the Uighur Muslims. Turkey has also made an emotional appeal to take up the issue at the United Nations Security Council. Similarly, Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi of Iran condemned the incident but the government was cautious in its response. Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki reportedly discussed the issue in a telephonic conversation with his Chinese counterpart and “reflected concerns among Islamic countries.”

    Other countries of the region have preferred to maintain silence or ignored the issue by describing it as an internal affair of China. This is primarily because many of these countries enjoy significant trade relations with China and some are in the process of strengthening their political and strategic ties. Even Syrian Ambassador to China Khalaf Al-Jarad, supported the actions of the Chinese government to protect law and order in the region and said that, “Xinjiang is an integral part of China,” and added that, “the threatening of Xinjiang's safety, stability and public order will only harm China's development and progress, and is toxic to national unity.”

    Saudi Arabia is the largest trading partner of china in the whole West Asia and North Africa. According to a report published by the Saudi British Bank in February 2009, China is the second-largest source of Saudi imports and the Kingdom’s fifth-largest export customer. In April 2006, Chinese President Hu Jintao announced his intention to take the bilateral trade volume between the two countries to 150 billion Saudi Riyals by 2010 which they have already achieved by 2008. According to official Chinese figures, in 2007, the trade volume between China and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries stood at 58 billion US dollars, with imports of 30.3 billion and exports of 27.7 billion US dollars. The trade volume has witnessed a 71.6 per cent increase to 33.8 billion US dollars in the year 2005.

    Similarly, Iran is currently China’s third largest supplier of crude, providing China with roughly 12 percent of its total annual oil consumption. Recently, both the countries signed a 3.2 billion US dollar’ deal to develop Iran’s South Pars natural gas field. China also supports Iran’s nuclear programme and Iran allies herself with China to deter attempts of the USA and the West to isolate her internationally. Apart from that both the countries enjoy extensive military relations. Also, Iran’s search for international allies and its status as an observer in the SCO makes it overlook the events of Xingjian.

    Bilateral trade between China and Egypt hit 6.2 billion US dollars in 2008 and China is poised to be Egypt's largest trading partner by 2010 surpassing USA. Egypt is also trying to strengthen her defence and strategic cooperation with China. Thus keeping in view the huge trade interests of these countries, nobody wants to annoy China at this juncture over the Uighurs’ issue.

    Secondly, West Asian countries themselves are undemocratic and authoritarian and have the history of using excessive force to suppress domestic opposition and rebellion by any group. This can be substantiated by a number of instances from the region. Saudi Arabia keeps its Shia population suppressed using excessive force against them a number of times and has violated their religious and cultural freedoms. It has also gone to the extent of destroying mosques of the Shia minority, banning their festivals and religious literature. The recent post-election violence has witnessed excessive force used by the government in Iran. There are also numerous instances of state oppression in other countries of the region. West Asian countries are the worst violators of human rights and freedoms, and lack the legitimacy to stand up against Chinese oppression in the Uighur region. They are afraid that the same allegations may be leveled against them as they are authoritarian and in the past have witnessed popular mobilisation against them.

    Thirdly, the success of Chinese diplomacy and propaganda in the region has made the situation tilt in Beijing’s favour. Rebiya Kadeer, a businesswoman and the leader of the World Uighur Congress stated that, “the Islamic world is silent about the Uighurs' suffering because the Chinese authorities have been very successful in their propaganda to the Muslim world.” Since 9/11 China came out openly in support of America’s war against terror. It provided China a strong platform to claim Uighurs had links with terrorists and at the same time befriend the powerful Muslim countries; thus successfully de-linking the Uighur issue from the larger spectrum of Islamic issues. Rebiya Kadeer has also alleged that, “Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and a number of other Muslim countries as well as the central Asian states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - they all deported Uighurs who had fled Chinese persecution for peacefully opposing Chinese rule, for writing something, for speaking something.”

    The OIC expressed deep concern over the incident and called upon the Chinese government to provide security to the Uighur Muslims and to facilitate their return to normal life. At the same time OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu also urged member countries close to China to support him in his efforts to establish contacts with the Chinese government and help in easing the tension in the region.

    Clearly, the responses from countries of the West Asian region seem indifferent and unenthusiastic. Apart from Turkey, no other country in the region has seriously taken up the issue. Had any incident of this nature happened in Kashmir or in Palestine or in any other part of the world, it would have elicited a more vocal response from these countries. Given their own vulnerability and the amount of trade between West Asian states and China along with aggressive Chinese diplomacy and propaganda is the primary reason for their calculated responses to the events in Xinjiang.