Anxious not to offend China, Turkey stays mum on treatment of Uighurs

Erdogan is hoping that Turkey could reap benefits from a Chinese plan to develop overland, sea and air export routes to Europe.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Uighur men stand in front of a map showing the area claimed by Uighur separatists as “East Turkistan” marked in blue at a resettlement community in central Turkey. (AP)
Double standards. Uighur men stand in front of a map showing the area claimed by Uighur separatists as “East Turkistan” marked in blue at a resettlement community in central Turkey. (AP)

ISTANBUL - Anxious not to offend Beijing amid a financial crisis and spat with the United States, Turkey is keeping mum on the treatment of the Uighur Muslim minority in China despite speaking out frequently against other reported cases of oppression of Muslims internationally.

A UN rights panel said in August that it had credible reports that up to 1 million ethnic Uighurs were being held in extra-legal detention in the Xinjiang region in western China and called for them to be freed. Human Rights Watch said the Uighurs, a Turkic minority, faced arbitrary detention, daily curbs on religious practice and “forced political indoctrination” in a massive security crackdown. The US administration is considering sanctions against China over the issue, news reports said.

Beijing said the United Nations should “respect China’s sovereignty.” China has said Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Islamist militants and separatists who plot attacks and stir up tensions between the mostly Muslim Uighurs and the ethnic Han Chinese majority.

Analysts and pro-Uighur activists noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not commented on the issue. Erdogan is known for sharp criticism of Israel over its approach to the Palestinians and of European countries, which he has accused of Islamophobia. Last year, Erdogan said Myanmar was committing “genocide” against the Rohingya Muslim minority.

He has lashed out against China in the past. Speaking as prime minister in 2009, Erdogan attacked China’s treatment of the Uighurs with the word “genocide,” triggering accusations by Beijing that Erdogan was interfering in internal Chinese affairs. Three years ago, tensions between Ankara and Beijing rose when Uighurs sought refuge in Thailand and Turkey offered them shelter against China’s wishes.

This time it is different. Turkey’s currency, the lira, has lost about 40% of its value against the US dollar and the euro since the start of the year. The drop has been made worse by a row between Turkey and the United States that led to US economic sanctions against Turkey.

Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank, said Turkey’s economic problems were Erdogan’s main concern.

“Although Erdogan has presented himself as a champion of Turkey’s ethnic and religious brethren globally, in relations with both Russia and China, Erdogan has chosen to turn a blind eye to the plight of Turkic and Muslim victims,” Erdemir said via e-mail. In the case of Russia, he was referring to the Crimean Tartars, a Muslim minority that says its rights have been violated since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014, and to Muslims in the Russian region of Chechnya.

“At this point, Erdogan’s political and economic survival concerns at home will trump all other concerns, including the humanitarian ones,” Erdemir added.

China could play an important role in helping Turkey overcome its economic crisis. The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in August provided a $3.6 billion loan package to the Turkish energy and transportation sector. Close to 1,000 Chinese companies are active in Turkey and Ankara is working to attract more Chinese tourists.

Erdogan is hoping that Turkey, located between Europe, the Middle East and Asia, could reap benefits from a Chinese plan to develop overland, sea and air export routes to Europe. The massive project, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) could mean billions of dollars in investments to Turkey.

Alip Erkin, an Australia-based activist for Uyghur Bulletin, a social media campaign for Uighur rights, said economic considerations were the main reason Turkey was avoiding the Uighur issue.

“All these irresistible tourism market and financial deals, as well as the long-term economic benefits [BRI] has to offer for Turkey have effectively made the current unprecedented Uighur persecution a taboo for the Turkish government,” Erkin wrote in an e-mail.

Turks feel a special bond with the Uighurs, a Turkic people close to the Turks’ historical home in central Asia. Turkish migration into Anatolia, then controlled by the Greek Byzantine Empire, began in the 11th century. The Turkish-Uighur bond was “evident from the Turkish people’s exceptionally warm welcome of Uighurs in their society” as well as from the fact that Turks knew more about the Uighurs’ situation than others, Erkin wrote.

Erkin and Erdemir differed on whether Erdogan, a politician admired by his supporters for his outspokenness, could lose domestic support if he declines to comment on the Uighur issue.

Erdemir said he expects few risks for the Turkish president. “Erdogan has a carte blanche in foreign policy since his near-total control of the Turkish media shields him from criticism at home,” he wrote. “The luxury of domestic unaccountability allows the Turkish president to pursue a weathervane foreign policy characterised by frequent U-turns and double standards.”

Erkin, however, pointed out that not all media in Turkey were under Erdogan’s sway. “If the emergency level of the situation is felt by the Turkish public by alternative media coverage, some supporters of Erdogan could surely be disillusioned by his double standards over Muslim solidarity,” he wrote.