The estimated one million-strong, predominantly Bengali-speaking Muslim Rohingya population, of Indian origin, has lived in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, bordering Bangladesh, for over two centuries. Independent Myanmar denied them citizenship and the Rohingyas resorted to an armed struggle, with support from radical Islamic groups, particularly in the Af-Pak region.
An attack on military installations by armed Rohingyas on August 25, 2017, provoked a ruthless Myanmar Army response. This resulted in around a million Rohingyas now living as refugees in Bangladesh. The international community and Muslim countries across the world have unequivocally condemned Myanmar, while India has urged Myanmar, in consultation with Bangladesh, to create conditions for safe and secure return of the refugees.
The near universal condemnation, however, establishes the double standards of the Islamic world. What we are seeing now is how the Islamic countries, and particularly the Jeddah-based 53-member Organisation of Islamic Conference, condemn Myanmar unequivocally, while observing a stony silence over the persecution of the 11.3 million Uighur Muslims of Turkic origin, living in China’s Xinjiang Province, bordering Afghanistan and Central Asia. According to reports from the UN and US officials, over one million Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, have been housed in several internment camps for months now. They have been forced to renounce Islam, prevented from wearing skullcaps and compelled to condemn Islamic beliefs and practices, while being forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. The Chinese Communist Party justifies its actions as being against people who are mentally unstable. Doors of mosques have now been closed in Xinjiang.
With Uighur population present across Central Asia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the EU and North America, reports of the atrocities are spreading worldwide. Moreover, China’s repression also has important economic reasons: 15 percent of China’s proven oil reserves, 22 percent of its gas reserves and a very significant part of its nuclear and strategic materials, are to be found in Xinjiang. There are growing fears of an increasing number of Uighur youth crossing the border into Afghanistan, seeking support of the Taliban and the ISIS, against China. The developments also explain why China is backing the Russia-Asad effort to eliminate the ISIS in Syria. There are reports indicating that up to 5,000 Xinjiang Uighurs have joined the ISIS in Iraq and Syria, where ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had listed Xinjiang as the region where Muslims were facing maximum persecution.
Uighur militants entering Afghanistan have evidently raised alarm bells in Beijing. There are reports of China seeking base facilities for its military in Afghanistan, to meet challenges posed by possible support to the Uighurs, from the ISIS and the Taliban. One wonders how China is now going to reconcile its cosy relationship with the Taliban, with its desire to eliminate Taliban-backed Uighur radicals. As military pressures on them grow, Uighur rebels could well cross into Pakistan’s Pashtun tribal areas, particularly in North Waziristan, which has traditionally been a centre for support of radical Islamic groups. Would Imran Khan, himself a Pashtun and champion of supporting Islamic causes, support the Uighurs, or join “all weather friend” China in suppressing them, on Pashtun-populated Pakistani soil?