Islamabad (AFP) – Even as Pakistan this week drew international attention to the plight of Muslims in Indian Kashmir, Islamabad stayed conspicuously silent about another embattled Muslim community — China’s Uighur population.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has presented himself as a defender of Muslims worldwide and routinely speaks out on the disputed Kashmir region, even comparing Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Adolf Hitler and accusing him of overseeing a genocide.
“We will never accept, and neither will the Kashmiris, the illegal Indian actions and oppression of the Kashmiri people,” Khan said Wednesday as Pakistan marked the one-year anniversary of India stripping the Muslim-majority region of its semi-autonomous status.
This week he led a march through Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, as thousands took to the streets across the country.
But even amid mounting evidence of a harsh crackdown on the Uighur population in neighbouring China’s Xinjiang region, Khan has refused to be drawn into the domestic affairs of Pakistan’s long-time ally.
Rights groups estimate more than one million Uighurs and other Turkic-speaking minorities have been rounded up into a network of internment camps, which China has branded “re-education centres”.
Both Kashmiris and Uighurs have been subjected to curfews, profiling, and a massive presence of security forces along with moves to allow outsiders to settle in their homelands.
“Silence on Uighurs will also cost Pakistan credibility on the Kashmir issue,” columnist Huma Yusuf wrote in Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper.
“Khan has previously argued that the scale of the two issues is different. But this argument will not be enough if Pakistan wants to be perceived as a genuine champion of Muslims’ and human rights when speaking on Kashmir.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia Program at the US-based Wilson Center, said such criticism was “justifiable”.
“Pakistan should be held to a higher standard because it accords so much bandwidth and policy space to the plight of Kashmiri Muslims as well as Indian Muslims, while saying nothing about Uighurs,” Kugelman said.
‘Grateful to China’
Pakistan and India have clashed over Kashmir since independence from Britain in 1947, with both countries claiming the territory that has sparked two full-blown wars between the foes.
China meanwhile has steadily poured cash into Pakistan, investing more than $50 billion as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that has upgraded infrastructure, power and transport links connecting Xinjiang to Pakistan’s newly refurbished Gwadar port.
China has also offered steadfast diplomatic support to Pakistan during its frequent bouts of unrest with India.
“Pakistan sees China as its principal supporter against India and is unwilling to say or do anything that disrupts ties with Beijing,” Husain Haqqani — Pakistan’s former ambassador to the US who is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute — told AFP.
When asked about the Uighurs, Khan has wafted between citing unfamiliarity with the issue and defending Pakistan’s vital relationship China.
“China has helped us when we were at rock bottom. We are really grateful to the Chinese government, so we have decided that any issues we have had with China we will handle privately,” Khan said at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January.
Pakistan’s silence on the Uighurs is not unique in the Islamic world.
Prince Mohammed bin Salman, heir to the throne of Saudi Arabia and the country’s de facto leader, has also defended China, saying he respected Beijing’s “anti-terrorism” efforts. Turkey has also toned down criticism on the issue.
Analysts say Khan and future Pakistani leaders are unlikely to change course.
“Because Pakistan’s population doesn’t know much about and doesn’t feel strongly about the Uighur issue, the state insulates itself from charges of hypocrisy,” said Madiha Afzal, a Brookings Institution fellow.
“On the other hand, Kashmir is an issue of visceral importance to many Pakistanis, and central to Pakistan’s conflict with India — as such, the Pakistani state is almost expected by its people to raise its voice.”