Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad told a Turkish news outlet on Wednesday that condemning China over its treatment of the Uyghur Muslim minority “would not achieve anything,” drawing criticism from human rights groups.
Mahathir was asked in an interview by TRT World why Malaysia and other majority-Muslim countries were slow to speak out against Beijing’s policies toward the Uyghurs, and why Kuala Lumpur had not joined 22 countries in signing a letter to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights that condemned China’s mass detention of Uyghurs.
“We do what we can. We don’t knock our heads against a stone wall simply because it is there,” Mahathir told the Turkish radio and television channel.
The Malaysian leader said he needed more information about the plight of the Uyghurs before passing judgment on the Chinese. He described China as a powerful nation that must be treated as such.
Authorities in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) have held up to 1.5 million Uyghurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” ideas in internment camps since April 2017.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang as a humanitarian crisis that is “on the scale of what took place in the 1930s” in an apparent reference to the policies of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. He also called the incarcerations “the stain of the century.”
Mahathir said condemning China would not resolve the issue.
“At the moment we need to verify certain things of what they are accused of. Of course they deny,” he said in the interview. “We believe that the approach should not be confrontational. It should be through negotiation and exposure of what is actually happening in China.
“We can condemn it [China] but the fact is that the condemnation alone would not achieve anything.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW) and rights advocates in Malaysia were quick to react to the prime minister’s comments.
“When even outspoken leaders like Mahathir bite their tongue rather than criticize, it illustrates the incredible steps China is taking to intimidate critics both near and far,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for New York-based HRW, told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“Like the rest of the OIC, Malaysia crumbled under pressure when it came time to speak the truth about the Uyghurs to the powers that be in Beijing. Mahathir should have bucked the trend and condemned the violations of rights and freedom of religion suffered by the Uyghurs,” he said, referring to the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
Aminuddin Yahya, president of Malaysia’s Coalition of Muslim Groups (ISMA), urged Mahathir’s administration to speak out against China’s Uyghur policies.