Malaysia and the Deportation of Ethnic Uyghur Asylum Seekers

Matt James, Intern, Uyghur Human Rights Project

Malaysia is not a nation that is immediately associated with Uyghur asylum seekers. However, the Southeast Asian nation has been the center of not one but two major Uyghur asylum-seeking scandals in the past two years. In both cases, Uyghur asylum seekers were secretly deported back to the People’s Republic of China despite the fact that the deported Uyghurs faced torture, imprisonment and possible execution.

In 2011, the government of Malaysia secretly deported 11 Uyghurs. More recently on December 31, 2012 Kuala Lumpur secretly deported another 6 Uyghur asylum seekers, which HRW called a “grave violation of international law” given China’s dubious charges  against them. In a recent statement, Malaysia said only that China requested they be deported because of an offence. Despite Islam being the state religion of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur’s foreign policy and stance towards the Uyghurs of East Turkestan centers around Malaysian-Chinese relations rather than Islamic ties, and is inconsistent with the country’s foreign policy stance towards other ethnic conflicts, particularly in Kosovo and the Bangsamaro region of the Philippines.

Malaysian relations with China have gained importance in recent years. Malaysia has elevated links with Northeast Asia, especially since China’s historic role in the recovery of the Southeast Asian region after the 1997 financial crisis. Malaysia also has a large ethnic Han population, making up 23.7% of its population. Economic ties to China have grown in recent years and have even started to outpace those of Malaysia’s other Chinese-speaking trade partner, Taiwan.

Though it may reflect the importance of Chinese-Malaysian relations, Malaysia’s treatment of the Uyghurs is inconsistent with its foreign policy stance towards other ethnic conflicts. Kuala Lumpur officially claims a foreign policy of non-inference in the internal affairs of foreign nations, and it reserves the right to cast aside this commitment to non-interference in the face of clear violations of international law, such as Serbia’s attempted ethnic cleansing in Kosovo in the 1990s. Malaysia was one of the first countries in Asia to recognize the majority ethnic Albanian, and Muslim, region of Kosovo as an independent nation, which caused the government of Serbia to expel Malaysia’s ambassador in protest.

The government of Malaysia has also acted and negotiated on behalf the Muslim Moro people of the Philippines in the southern region of Bangsamoro, despite risking anger from Manila. Malaysia’s relations with the Philippines have historically been an issue of national security, with the two nations nearly coming to conflict in the 1960s over Malaysia’s Sabah state for which it still pays an annual token rent to the Philippines’ Sulu islands.  Rather than refusing to get involved in the Bangsamoro conflict on the grounds of non-interference, Malaysia played a significant role in negotiating the recent peace deal between the Philippine government and the largest Moro insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Without forgoing its economic and political ties to China, Kuala Lumpur should strive to negotiate on behalf of the Uyghurs, as it effectively did on behalf of the Moro people of Bangsamoro. Malaysia should voice concern about the Chinese government’s treatment of ethnic Uyghurs in East Turkestan and use China’s desire for stronger ties with Southeast Asia as political leverage to pressure Beijing on Uyghur human rights. The secret deportation of ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers is inconsistent Malaysia’s own foreign policy and Islamic values. At the very least, Kuala Lumpur should reevaluate its recent actions and end its policy of deporting ethnic Uyghur asylum seekers back to China.

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