Elite Maneuvering, the Uighur Crisis, and Indonesian Politics

Aaron Connelly recently tweeted about a sudden increase in attention to the Uighur crisis in Indonesia.

The thread is worth reading in full, as it details the challenges that the current government’s predicaments in criticizing the Chinese government, and explains why Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim mass organization, has remained silent on the issue. The predicament comes from the fact that China supplies massive amounts of infrastructure investment that Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo needs, the fact that Indonesia has its own restive region which gives it a strong incentive to support non-interference in the domestic affairs of other countries, and because ethnic Chinese Indonesians are a vulnerable population whose membership in the Indonesian political community has long been questioned. NU’s silence on the Uighur issue is plausibly linked to an explicit Chinese campaign to win over Indonesia’s Muslim elites, and Jokowi’s running mate for the upcoming elections is an NU elite. These facts constrain Jokowi’s options in responding to developments in Xinjiang.

But Indonesia’s opposition is not so constrained. And here we have dilemma that’s inherent to democratic politics. Indonesia’s opposition is democratic, but large portions of it, including the frontrunner Prabowo Subianto, are illiberal (and even this is being generous). It is entirely reasonable for an opposition to lambast the country’s non-interference principle in the context of an incipient genocide (which is what the Uighur campaign is), but doing so empowers politicians who intentions are anything but liberal, tolerant, or inclusive. Indeed, we know from the Ahok affair that the opposition is keen to exploit anti-Chinese and anti-Christian sentiments for political gain.

As if on cue, here is a tweet from shortly after Connelly’s thread from the Prosperous Justice Party’s (PKS’s) parliamentary fraction—PKS is an Islamist party that is part of the opposition and that supports Prabowo’s 2019 presidential campaign.

It says Indonesia must be serious in responding to the plight (or fate) of the Muslim Uighurs. This is a reasonable argument, and a liberal citizen concerned with global justice and human rights would have every reason to support it. But any elite endorsement of anti-Chinese mass opinion will inevitably rebound to affect the country’s Chinese minority, and we should have no illusions that a muscular campaign platform defending the Uighurs’ plight from Prabowo or PKS would actually affect their relations with China, or spill over positively to shape the state of affairs in Papua.

But Connelly is entirely right that Indonesia’s opposition has the ability to make the Uighur crisis a political issue, one that shapes and is shaped by mass public opinion. We don’t know how that will play out in Indonesia, because no other Muslim democracy has confronted the Uighur crisis as an issue of mass politics. But we are about to see.