BEIJING: A senior Pakistani diplomat on Thursday put up a staunch defence of the controversial education camps in China's volatile Xinjiang province where thousands of Uyghur Muslims have been reportedly detained, saying there is no forced labour or cultural and religious repression in the region.
China recently took diplomats from 12 countries with large Muslim populations, including India and Pakistan, to its Xinjiang province where tens of thousands of members of the minority Uyghur Muslims have been interned in education camps.
"During this visit, I did not find any instance of forced labour or cultural and religious repression," Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, the Charge d'affaires, Pakistan's Embassy in China, told the state-run Global Times on Thursday.
"The imams we met at the mosques and the students and teachers at the Xinjiang Islamic Institute told us that they enjoy freedom in practicing Islam and that the Chinese government extends support for maintenance of mosques all over Xinjiang," said Baloch, who visited Xinjiang as part of delegation of diplomats.
"Similarly, I did not see any sign of cultural repression. The Uyghur culture as demonstrated by their language, music and dance is very much part of the life of the people of Xinjiang," she said.
Asked about the security situation in Xinjiang, which has been "beset by terrorism", Baloch said, "we learned that the recent measures have resulted in improvement of the security situation in Xinjiang and there have been no incidents of terrorism in recent months."
"The counter-terrorism measures being taken are multidimensional and do not simply focus on law enforcement aspects. Education, poverty alleviation and development are key to the counter-terrorism strategy of the Chinese government," she said.
Xinjiang's regional government invited diplomatic envoys as well as representatives from Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Afghanistan, Thailand, and Kuwait following reports about detention of thousands of Uygur and other Muslims in massive education camps.
The UN's Geneva-based Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last year said that it was alarmed by "numerous reports of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities" being detained in Xinjiang region and called for their immediate release.
Estimates about them "range from tens of thousands to upwards of a million," it had said.
China defended the camps, saying they are re-education camps aimed at de-radicalising sections of the Uyghur population from extremism and separatism.
The US and several other countries besides UN officials have expressed concern over the camps.
China has been carrying out massive crackdown on the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in Xinjiang province, where Uyghurs who formed majority in the region were restive over the increasing settlements of Han community.
Pakistan and several other Muslim countries faced criticism about their silence over China's crackdown on Muslims in Xinjiang.
China has about 20 million Muslims who are mostly Uyghurs, an ethnic group of Turkic origin, and Hui Muslims, who are of the Chinese ethnic origin.
While Uyghurs lived in Xinjiang, bordering Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Hui Muslims resided in Ningxia province.
A recent report in the Global Times said China passed a five-year plan to 'sinicize Islam' in a bid to make it compatible with its version of socialism.
"This is China's important act to explore ways of governing religion in modern countries," the report said.
Baloch said the delegation was given full and open access to the three centres that they visited in Kashgar and Hotan.
"The training program includes teaching of national common language (Chinese), law and constitution and vocational skills. The students also participate in recreational activities like sports, music and dance. We witnessed several skill classes being offered in these centres," she said.
"During the visits to these centres, we had the opportunity to interact with both the management and the students. We observed the students to be in good physical health. The living facilities are fairly modern and comfortable with separate dormitories for men and women. They are being served halal food," she said.
She said the Uyghur language is being used in official establishments, airports, subway stations, police stations or hotels.
"Even the copies of the Koran that we saw in the mosques and the Islamic centre were translated into the Uyghur language. The most visible sign of protection of Uyghur culture by the government is the government-run bilingual kindergarten schools where children learn Putonghua as well as Uyghur language and culture from a very young age," she said.