This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Authorities in northwest China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) ramped up detentions of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities last year to implement “counterterrorism” measures that severely violated religious freedoms, the U.S. State Department said in an annual report released Wednesday.
According to U.S. government estimates, more than 1 million Uyghurs, ethnic Kazakhs, Hui, and other Muslim groups have been detained in a vast network of internment camps in the XUAR since April 2017, the State Department’s 2019 International Religious Freedom Report said, although many nongovernmental organizations believe the number is much higher.
Detainees were subjected to “forced disappearance, political indoctrination, torture, psychological and physical and psychological abuse, including forced sterilization and sexual abuse, forced labor, and prolonged detention without trial because of their religion and ethnicity” at the camps, which RFA’s Uyghur Service has reported may number around 1,300 facilities and have held up to 1.8 million people.
The report, which included a separate section on the XUAR this year due to “the scope and severity of reported religious freedom violations specific to the region,” said that amidst the detentions, “the whereabouts of hundreds of prominent Uighur intellectuals, doctors, journalists, artists, academics, and other professionals, in addition to many other citizens, who were arrested or detained remained unknown.”
“The government intensified use of detentions in furtherance of implementing a Xinjiang counterextremism regulation that identifies ‘extremist’ behaviors (including growing beards, wearing headscarves, and abstaining from alcohol) and the National Counterterrorism Law, which addresses ‘religious extremism,’” the report said.
In particular, authorities punished people for praying or studying the Quran, and donating to mosques; demanded that individuals remove religious symbols from their homes, and barred youths from taking part in religious activities.
They also banned several categories of people from fasting during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan and considered observing the Ramadan fast and participating in the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca to be suspicious behavior. The report noted that satellite imagery indicated that the government destroyed “numerous mosques and other religious sites,” and monitored others.
Additionally, authorities maintained what the State Department called “extensive and invasive security and surveillance,” in part to document the religious adherence and practices of individuals. Some of the monitoring included behavioral profiling and forcing Uyghurs to accept government officials living in their homes and to install mandatory spyware applications on their phones.
Many of these measures were undertaken in the name of eradicating the “three evils” of “ethnic separatism, religious extremism, and violent terrorism”—a longstanding pretext used by the government to justify its restrictions in the region.
In late 2019, several internal government documents were leaked that described the government’s mass detention and surveillance programs, including a manual for how to operate internment camps, keep their existence secret, and methods of forced indoctrination. Another document showed that the government initially interned or extended internment of individuals on religious grounds in four camps in one county in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture.
Uyghur Muslims also continued to endure significant societal discrimination in employment and business opportunities—in addition to suppression of language, culture, and religious practices—while authorities promoted the Han Chinese majority in political, economic, and cultural life.
The report comes as the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020—which makes possible U.S. sanctions on Chinese government officials responsible for arbitrary incarceration, forced labor and other abuses in the XUAR—awaits signing by President Donald Trump.
TAR and other parts of China
In the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and other Tibetan areas of China, authorities continued to engage in “widespread interference in religious practices,” especially in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries, the report said, noting reports of forced disappearance, torture, physical abuse, prolonged detention without trial, and arrests of individuals due to their religious practices.
Government and ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and government-approved monks were appointed to manage religious institutions, while authorities continued to restrict the size of Buddhist monasteries and other institutions, evict monks and nuns from monasteries, and prohibit them from practicing elsewhere. Monasteries were forced to display portraits of CCP leaders and the national flag.
In July, Wang Neng Shang, vice minister of the TAR and director general of the People’s Government Information Office, said the selection of the next Dalai Lama—the Tibetan spiritual leader—was not the current Dalai Lama’s decision to make, and instead must be recognized by the central government in Beijing.
In other parts of China, a State Department-designated Country of Political Concern (CPC) since 1999, the government exerted control over religion and restricted activities and personal freedom of religious adherents when it perceived them as threatening state or ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) interests, the report said, while only state-sanctioned religious groups were permitted to hold worship services.
The government also continued a campaign of religious “Sinicization” to bring all religious doctrine and practice in line with CCP doctrine, adopting a formal five-year plan on Jan. 7.
The State Department noted reports of deaths in custody and that the government tortured, physically abused, arrested, detained, sentenced to prison, or harassed adherents of both registered and unregistered religious groups for activities related to their religious beliefs and practices.
In Myanmar, the State Department noted continued violence, discrimination, and harassment against ethnic Rohingya in Rakhine state in the aftermath of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign against the group in 2017 that resulted in the displacement of more than 700,000 refugees to Bangladesh.
“Rohingya remaining in Burma continued to face an environment of severe repression and restrictions on freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare, and livelihoods based on their ethnicity, religion, and citizenship status,” it said, citing the United Nations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Those who fled Myanmar during 2019 reported ongoing abuses in Rakhine state, while others spoke of continuing government pressure to participate in a residency verification campaign, which they stated they did not trust.
In November the International Criminal Court (ICC) approved a request from prosecutors to investigate allegations of certain crimes committed against the Rohingya, while in that same month, The Gambia filed a case at the International Court of Justice stating Myanmar’s actions against the Rohingya violated the country’s obligations as a signatory to the 1948 United Nations genocide convention.
Several U.N. entities spoke out or released reports on the Rohingya crisis in 2019, with a U.N. Fact-Finding Mission concluding in September that “the threat of genocide continues for the remaining Rohingya.” The government denied the mission permission to enter the country and publicly disavowed the report.
A second attempt by the governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh to initiate a return in August was refused by Rohingyas, who said they would be subjected to rights abuses if they returned without a guarantee of citizenship.
Meanwhile, government and military officials continued to use anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim rumors and hate speech circulating on social media in formal meetings, public speeches, and other official settings, it said. Facebook removed hundreds of accounts, pages and groups linked to military leadership for propagating hate speech, including anti-Muslim rhetoric.
In addition to the Rohingyas, non-Buddhist minorities throughout Myanmar—a Buddhist majority country that has also been on the CPC list since 1999—reported restrictions on religious practice, denial of freedom of movement, closed places of worship, an inability to obtain permits for religious buildings and repairs, and discrimination in employment and housing.