Who are the Uyghurs and where do they live? That is what most of you will be asking yourselves as the international press has almost forgotten this ethnic minority that lives in a territory known as East Turkistan under the boot of their Chinese oppressors.
East Turkistan, also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, lies in the heart of Asia. The current territorial size is 1,626,000 square kilometers (635,000 square miles), which is 4 times the size of California. According to official records in 1949, East Turkistan’s original territories contained 1,820,000 square kilometers of land. The Qinghai and Gansu provinces of China annexed part of the territory as a result of the Chinese communist invasion of 1949. It has a diverse geography. It has grand deserts, magnificent mountains, and beautiful rivers, lakes, grasslands and forests. It is the homeland of the Turkic speaking Uyghurs and other central Asian peoples such as Kazaks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, Uzbeks, and Tajiks. According to the latest Chinese census, the present population of these Muslims is slightly over 11 million; among these, the 8.68 million Uyghurs constitute the majority. However, sources indicate that the Uyghur population is about 18 million.
The invaded country is located beyond a logical boundary of China, the Great Wall. Historically, it is a part of Central Asia, not of China. East Turkistan’s people are not Chinese; they are Turks of Central Asia.
Records show that the Uyghurs have a history of more than 4000 years in East Turkistan. Situated along a section of the legendary Silk Road, Uyghurs played an important role in cultural exchanges between the East and West and developed a unique culture and civilization of their own. The Uyghurs embraced Islam in A.D. 934 during the Karahanid Kingdom. Kashgar, the capital of the Kingdom, quickly became one of the major learning centers of Islam. Art, the sciences, music and literature flourished as Islamic religious institutions nurtured the pursuit of an advanced culture. In this period, hundreds of world-renowned Uyghur scholars emerged. Thousands of valuable books were written. Among these works, the Uyghur scholar Yusuf Has Hajip’s book, Kutatku Bilig (The Knowledge for Happiness, 1069-1070) and Mahmud Kashgari’s Divan-i Lugat-it Turk (a dictionary of Turk languages) are most influential.
The circumstances are similar to those of Tibet. The Islamic Uyghur Kingdom of East Turkestan maintained its independence and prosperity until the Manchu Empire invaded the nation in 1876. After eight years of bloody war, the Manchu Empire formally annexed East Turkistan into its territories and renamed it “Xinjiang” (meaning “New Territory” or “New Frontier”) on November 18, 1884. Uyghur power, stature and culture went into a steep decline after the Manchu invasion. After Chinese Nationalists overthrew the Manchu Empire in 1911, East Turkistan fell under the rule of the nationalist Chinese government. The Uyghurs, who wanted to free themselves from foreign domination, staged numerous uprisings against Nationalist Chinese rule and twice (once in 1933 and again in 1944) succeeded in setting up an independent East Turkistan Republic.
Heavy-handed state repression of all activities associated by the Chinese government with “Separatism” has created a dire human rights environment for the Uyghur Muslim minority population of northwest China. Beijing has for more than a decade claimed to be confronted with “religious extremist forces” and “violent terrorists” in Xinjiang Province, a vast region one-sixth of China’s land area.
East Turkistan is in fact a large, sparsely populated area that has been a site of heavy army and police concentrations since 1949, and is used as a base for nuclear testing, military training, and prison labour facilities. The population of 18 million includes several Turkic-speaking Muslim ethnic groups, of which the Uyghurs, numbering eight million, are the largest. The percentage of ethnic Han Chinese as in Tibet, has grown as a result of government policies from six percent in 1949 to 40 percent at present, and now numbers some 7.5 million people. Much like Tibetans, Uyghurs in Xinjiang have struggled for cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx by Chinese migrants, as well as harsh repression of political dissent and any expression, however lawful or peaceful, of their distinct identity.
Reports document a pattern of abuse, including political imprisonment, torture, and disappearance. Mosques are summarily closed and the Uyghur language is banned from use in universities. Uyghurs are subjected to compulsory unpaid labour in the construction of a pipeline planned to export local petroleum resources to other parts of China. Uyghurs also continue to be the only population in China consistently subjected to executions for political crimes, and these executions are often both summary and public.
A handful of small-scale explosions aimed at government targets over the past decade have been repeatedly invoked by the Chinese government, particularly since September 11, in support of its strike-hard campaign to crack down on separatism and terrorism. In policy pronouncements for both domestic and international audiences, the government has sought to establish that all separatism is tantamount to Islamic terrorism, and in fact uses the terms interchangeably. The state’s efforts to extinguish the common desire among Uyghurs for autonomy or outright independence appear to have increased the alienation of the population and, some analysts speculation, the potential for future violent conflict.
Although human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International express concern over the deteriorating situation in East Turkistan, expertise on the region is so scarce that activists agree that without critical support from Uyghur-run human rights organizations, very little information from within the territory will see the light of day. Some information collection and documentation has begun in a sporadic way in Uyghur communities across the diaspora, but the effect will be limited without the establishment the establishment of a human rights organization specifically focused on the Uyghur situation.
Just today the Chinese government has threatened a diplomatic row with Australia if the ABC goes ahead on Tuesday with broadcasting a program about China’s escalating crackdown on the persecuted Uyghurs. This is just another proof of the Chinese government’s total disregard for human rights and the opinion of the rest of the world to the crimes they commit with total impunity.
The ABC’s Foreign Correspondent is due to air at 8pm on Tuesday with a report by Beijing-based reporter Stephen McDonell on the Chinese government’s increasingly harsh crackdown. During his attempts to film in East Turkistan, McDonell is aggressively challenged to present a journalist’s card and an ‘interviewing permit’ without which, he is told, interviews are illegal.
China’s paranoia and ill-treatment of its ethnic minorities is paramount to cultural genocide in both Tibet and East Turkistan to the point that for example, Uyghur women are no longer able to travel on buses wearing Muslim-style scarves and headdresses, nor display the Islamic crescent moon and star on their clothing let alone the ever-increasing number of victims of this terrible crackdown.
Rebiya Kadeer, an ethnic Uyghur was a very successful business woman and now an activist for the freedom of her oppressed country. She became a millionaire in the 1980s through her real estate holdings and ownership of a multinational conglomerate. Mrs Kadeer held various positions in China’s parliament and other political institutions before being arrested in 1999 for sending confidential internal reference reports to her husband, who worked in the United States as a pro-East Turkistan independence broadcaster. After she was discharged to the United States in 2005 on compassionate release, Kadeer claimed various leadership titles from overseas Uyghur organizations such as the World Uyghur Congress. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and she sees that the only solution for East Turkistan is full independence because the Uyghurs, as the Tibetans, are NOT Chinese.
The genocide in East Turkistan, as in Tibet, must be stopped with whatever means before these two precious cultures disappear for ever.