As China ramps up anti-terrorism security measures in its restive northwestern Xinjiang region, Malaysia is suddenly at the center of an extradition controversy where Beijing is bidding to leverage its economic clout for strategic favors.
China is now requesting Malaysia to repatriate 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims, a Turkic people indigenous to the Xinjiang region, currently being held in an immigration detention without charge or legal representation. The group of 11 were among 20 Uighur migrants who dramatically escaped a jail in southern Thailand last November.
The escapees, who have identified themselves as Turkish citizens and asked to be sent to Turkey, were part of a group of more than 200 Uighur migrants detained in Thailand since 2014.
Beijing has pursued a muscular security strategy in Xinjiang following a spate of violent attacks in recent years that authorities attribute to armed Uighur separatists who seek to establish an independent state. It has deployed military and paramilitary organizations in a bid to thwart Uighur nationalist militancy.
The heavy state security presence has come alongside a raft of measures curbing religious practices and freedom of movement. Surveillance and monitoring technologies have been deployed by authorities to impose political and social control, spurring frustration and fears of cultural loss among Xinjiang’s Uighur minority.
Xinjiang has also been the focus of a state-led economic modernization program that endeavors to transform the region into a Trans-Eurasian connectivity hub under President Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a vast plan to establish physical and financial infrastructure between China and major continental and maritime zones.
Rights groups and Uighur exiles have accused the Chinese government of human rights abuses, including torture and unjust imprisonment. Beijing denies claims of wrongdoing and equates its security crackdown with counter-terrorism efforts, linking Uighur militants to Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups.
Those claims are not without precedent. Uighur-speaking militants were last year featured in an IS propaganda video pledging to strike Chinese targets upon returning home. Mass stabbings and bombings have been tied to Uighur militancy in recent years, though experts continue to question their strength and capabilities.
Some security analysts believe Uighur militants carried out the deadly August 2015 bombing at Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine, the worst attack of its kind on Thai soil, in retaliation for Thailand’s forced repatriation of 109 Uighurs to China weeks earlier. No group has ever claimed responsibility for the attack.
As Beijing moves to persuade governments to extradite ethnic Uighurs it believes pose a security threat, rights groups have cautioned that those returned to China risk persecution. The Malaysian Bar Association issued a statement warning that the forcible deportation of the detained Uighurs would violate international law.
Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby, has called on the Malaysian government to provide the 11 Uighurs in custody with access to refugee status determination proceedings. The US State Department echoed those calls, urging Malaysian authorities to provide temporary protection for them while their eligibility for refugee protection is determined.
Malaysia is currently in talks with Thai authorities over the fate of the detained Uighurs, though neither party has reached a resolution. There are, however, strong indications that Malaysia will eventually comply with China’s extradition requests, as it has in the past.
Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister, told local media last year that biometric information provided by Chinese authorities had enabled the arrests of 29 Uighur militants since 2011, all of whom were deported to China. That includes six Uighurs sent back to China in 2012, despite their pending refugee status determinations.
Though Malaysia and China do not have a formal extradition agreement, the two sides inked a Mutual Legal Assistance treaty covering criminal offenses in 2015 when China’s Premier Li Keqiang made his first official visit to the country.
Last year, Zahid called for intensifying cooperation with China under the Mutual Legal Assistance framework, which enables both sides to request the deportation of nationals wanted for trans-border offenses, though reports indicate no shortage of instances where Uighurs have been repatriated without being formally charged with a crime.
Malaysian authorities have also cooperated with its allies’ efforts to track down alleged opponents abroad. Last year, it arrested and deported three Turkish men, suspected supporters of Fethullah Gülen, an exiled preacher blamed by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for a failed 2016 coup attempt.
The Southeast Asian country also deported a 23-year-old Saudi journalist, Hamza Kashgari, in 2012, who Saudi clerics labelled an apostate amid accusations he had insulted the prophet Muhammad in a Tweet. Kashgari was jailed for two years, though rights groups feared he would face the death penalty under Saudi Arabia’s draconian apostasy laws.
As Malaysia braces for a general election in the coming months, opponents of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s scandal-plagued tenure have taken aim at the premier’s efforts to expand China’s already large influence in Malaysia’s economy, which some opposition politicians have likened to selling out Malaysia’s sovereignty.
Chinese state-owned firms notably came to the rescue of the beleaguered 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) state development fund, purchasing two 1MDB-related entities last year, enabling the firm to settle a multimillion-dollar debt to Abu Dhabi’s International Petroleum Investment Company (IPIC).
China is Malaysia’s top trading partner and biggest source of foreign direct investment, channeling billions towards Malaysian property development, port and rail infrastructure, pipelines and industrial facilities, and a string of infrastructure projects down peninsular Malaysia’s eastern seaboard.
Many observers see China’s economic largesse as a political life raft for Najib, meaning he is strongly incentivized to avoid making any political decisions that could be deemed as unfavorable by Beijing.
Many observers see China’s economic largesse as a political life raft for Najib, meaning he is strongly incentivized to avoid making any political decisions that could be deemed as unfavorable by Beijing
“If these Uighurs were simply escaping from the political persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, then they should be protected at any cost, even if it will upset the Chinese, whom the Malaysian government is now indebted to,” says Ahmad Farouk Musa, director of the Islamic Renaissance Front (IRF), a Malaysian think-tank promoting Muslim intellectual discourse.
“Uighur asylum seekers are entitled to a fair hearing – they must first be proven to be involved in terrorism before the government entertains any deportation request,“ he said in an email response to Asia Times.
If Malaysian authorities answer China’s calls to repatriate the 11 Uighurs, Farouk believes it would undermine the Malaysian government’s attempts to posture as a defender of Islam ahead of an election season, where it faces an opposition adept at mobilizing support off of the premier’s missteps and hypocrisies.
“They held demonstrations for the Rohingyas [in Myanmar] and the Palestinians to further their political mileage. Nothing concrete was done on an International level. And their blatant refusal to grant political asylum to the persecuted Uighurs reveals their true colors,” he said.