By Noah Lee
Malaysia’s new government will not extradite ethnic Uyghurs to China if Beijing requests it and will allow them safe passage to a third country, a cabinet member told parliament recently, responding to questions from a lawmaker concerned that the policy could damage relations with China.
Although the government believes every country has the right to solve its internal problems as it chooses, the government also believes Uyghurs are being oppressed in China, so it won’t send them back there, said Redzuan Md Yusof, minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.
“[I]n the matter of Uyghur refugees, the government is of the stand not to interfere in the internal affairs of China,” Redzuan said in his written response. “However, if any Uyghur refugees flee to Malaysia for protection, Malaysia has decided not to extradite them even if China requests it,” Redzuan said.
“Malaysia believes every nation has the right to solve its internal problems without any interference from other countries. [But] the issue of oppression against Muslims around the world, including of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang in China, does exist and must be admitted by all parties,” he said.
Redzuan further said that any Uyghurs would “be allowed to go to a third country” via Malaysia because “they have valid fears about their safety and about persecution against them in their own country.”
Redzuan’s comments mark the first time that the government of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin has publicly articulated a stance on the Uyghurs since coming to power in Muslim-majority Malaysia six months ago.
The previous government, led by Mahathir Mohamad, had also said it wouldn’t extradite Uyghurs to China.
The minister’s comments outlining the Muhyiddin government’s policy on Uyghurs were in response to written questions posed by opposition parliamentarian Chan Foong Hin in July-August. The minister’s replies were published on the parliament’s website on Friday.
The opposition lawmaker told BenarNews that he had questions about Uyghur refugees in Malaysia because he wanted to know what the new government’s stance was and what its implications would be for Sino-Malaysian relations.
“As far as I am concerned, I recalled that the government extradited Uyghur refugees to China during the Najib [Razak] administration, but Mahathir’s administration altered the previous policy and refused to extradite them to China, though there was a request from China,” said Chan.
“I am really concerned about it as the changes in policy could have implications for Malaysia and China bilateral relations.”
Human rights group Amnesty International Malaysia, however, lauded the new government’s position on Uyghur refugees.
“We are glad that the authorities have stated on record that they will not violate the principle of non-refoulement in international law, prohibiting the return of refugees to their country of origin where they may face violence and persecution,” Katrina Maliamauv, executive director of the rights group, told BenarNews.
“The plight of Uyghur refugees in China has gone on for far too long and the government’s recognition of Uyghurs’ refugee status is a positive step forward.”
Maliamauv also said the refuges must be able to seek asylum.
“To uphold the principle of non-refoulement also means that refugees must be allowed to seek asylum.”
On Friday, officials at the Chinese Embassy in Kuala Lumpur did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews about the minister’s statement to parliament.
Beijing has been accused of committing mass atrocities against Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in northwestern China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR). Chinese authorities are believed to have held up to 1.8 million people in a vast network of internment camps in the region since April 2017.
Beijing describes the network of camps as voluntary “vocational centers,” but reporting by Radio Free Asia (RFA) – a sister agency of BenarNews – and other media outlets shows that detainees are mostly held against their will in poor conditions, where they are forced to endure inhumane treatment and political indoctrination.
China’s government has also defended its policies in the region as part of an official bid to combat extremism.
The move by a senior official from Muhyiddin’s government to say that it will safeguard Uyghurs from extradition to China is significant because governments in Malaysia have often shied away from commenting on the plight of that community. At the same time, though, they have been vocal about criticizing the mistreatment of the Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar, and have also supported the Palestinians in the Middle East.
The change began with the Mahathir government, even though the veteran politician told BenarNews last year that many Muslim countries’ leaders tend to be silent on the Uyghurs “because China is a very powerful nation.”
In October 2018, the Mahathir government sent 11 Uyghur refugees from China’s Xinjiang province to Turkey after dropping immigration charges against them, in defiance of a request by Beijing that they be returned.
In doing so, Mahathir distanced himself from the previous Najib administration, which wanted to extradite the 11 Uyghurs who had entered Malaysia illegally after they escaped from a Thai prison in Nov 2017.
“They have done nothing wrong in this country, so they are released,” Mahathir told media days after the Uyghurs were sent to Turkey, Reuters reported.
Mahathir took a firmer stand on the Uyghurs a year later.
“The issues of oppression against Islam worldwide, including the Uyghurs, exist and must be acknowledged by all parties,” Mahathir said in parliament in December 2019, even as he reiterated that his government wouldn’t interfere in China’s internal affairs.
“If Uyghurs are fleeing to Malaysia to seek asylum, Malaysia will not extradite them even if there is an application from China. They are allowed to go to the third country because they have valid fears over their safety.”