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Interview

Malaysia's Anwar to question China on Muslim detentions

Prime minister-in-waiting says he meets regularly with Mahathir

Malaysia's Prime Minister-designate Anwar Ibrahim speaks to the Nikkei Asian Review on Oct. 18 at his office in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. (Photo by CK Tan)

KUALA LUMPUR -- Senior Malaysian lawmaker Anwar Ibrahim has weighed in on the detention of Muslim minorities in China, urging Beijing to recognize ethnic Uighurs' rights to religion and freedom of movement.

In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday, Anwar, who is known as a Muslim reformist, also condemned Australia's proposal to move its embassy to Jerusalem and urged countries in the region to take a stronger stance on the Rohingya refugee crisis in Myanmar. 

Sworn in as a parliamentarian on Monday after an expected by-election win two days before, the 71-year-old prime minister-in-waiting is to meet Chinese Communist Party leaders next week in Beijing on the sidelines of a lecture at Renmin University of China.

Anwar said he will likely get an update from Beijing about the mass detention of Uighur Muslims which came to light recently. He added that he had in the past made known to China his position on the issue and officials in Beijing will use the occasion to explain their case.

"The concern is, of course, their rights to religion [and] movement," said Anwar. "Our position is not to condone any form of violence, either by the society or the state."

Anwar Ibrahim interacts with supporters during his by-election campaign rally on October 5, 2018 in Port Dickson, Malaysia. (Getty Images)

China maintains that minor criminals in Xinjiang have been absorbed into vocational educational and training programs as part of its countermeasures against growing extremism in the western region of the country.

In a lengthy interview published on Tuesday by state news agency Xinhua, Shohrat Zakir, head of the provincial government, said China employed rehabilitation and redemption for "those who have been instigated, coerced or lured into terrorist or extremist activities" through the reeducation camps.

Malaysia recently freed 11 ethnic Uighur Muslims who had been detained in February, and sent them to Turkey, despite requests from China to hand them over to Beijing. 

When asked if he supported the move, Anwar said, "If we find their case legitimate, we should assist them."

Speaking with Nikkei at his office on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, Anwar also criticized a recent proposal by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to move the country's embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is seen as a recognition of the city as Israel's capital.

"I fail to understand why Australia needs to succumb to Trump's unpopular policy throughout the world," said Anwar referring to U.S. President Donald Trump, who implemented a relocation of his country's embassy in May against the objections of many Muslim countries including Malaysia that observed a two-state solution to live side-by-side despite the decades-long dispute between Israel and Palestine.

On the humanitarian crisis faced by Myanmar's Rohingya minority who fled persecution in the western state of Rakhine for neighboring Bangladesh, Anwar called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to assert a "more effective" voice against Naypyidaw.

"We are not promoting war, but we have to express a strong displeasure about the political harassment and intimidation against the minority."

Since last August, over 700,000 of the ethnic Rohingya, who are also Muslims, have been living in refugee camps while waiting for the Myanmar government to facilitate their return.

Anwar Ibrahim, left, chats with Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Oct. 8 during a campaign rally ahead of the Oct. 13 by-election in Port Dickson, Malaysia.   © EPA/Jiji

Anwar in the interview also talked about Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, who is being closely watched by the public.

As he is now a ruling coalition lawmaker, Anwar said, his relationship with Mahathir has become closer. 

"The rapport is very good now. We met on Monday and today I am meeting him again before he presents his speech in the parliament," said Anwar. "We make it a point to have meetings regularly."

Mahathir had forged a deal with his once protege-turned-rival before the May 9 election, promising to hand over in about two years. Anwar reiterated that Mahathir should be given the "leeway" to lead during the transition period in order to redeem the country's diminished standing, which both blamed on former Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Although Anwar will bring up the Uighur issue in China, he said his trip to Beijing is meant to mend ties between the two countries.

"They want to know from me what the future is like," said Anwar about Beijing's invitation to speak on "Malaysia's rule of law and China-Malaysia's future."

"I would emphasize the need to have an effective, strong bilateral relationship," said Anwar, adding that he will ask Beijing to look beyond construction work and instead make substantive investments and technology transfers.

After coming to power in May, Mahathir suspended over $20 billion worth of infrastructure projects backed by Beijing, citing high costs and unfavorable payment terms as reasons.

Researcher Ying Xian Wong contributed to this article.

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