Saturday, August 27, 2005

Saving the Uyghurs

Saving the Uyghurs
China has intensified repression under the guise of a war on terror.

By Nury Turkel

Over the past few weeks, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to Europe, Asia, and Latin America, in large part to promote President Bush's vision of democracy and freedom. During her trip, she met with local dissidents from Belarus and Brazil. Not so during her trip to China.

Yet that trip was possibly the most fruitful — or at least eventful — with regard to democracy and human rights, for it yielded the release of Rebiya Kadeer, a nominee for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, who has been in prison since 1999. As Muslims face tyranny across the globe, President Bush's vision of freedom and democracy has a special resonance.

Like Rebiya Kadeer, I am a Uyghur. We are a Turkic Muslim people who live in what is now northwest China. China calls our homeland the "New Frontier," but we call it East Turkistan. As the protectors of the fabled Silk Road, my people have known and honored a diversity of ideas. Indeed, before converting to Islam, Uyghurs were Buddhists, Shaman, and Nestorian Christians. In addition to material goods, our central location led to an exchange of religions and cultures; we benefited from interactions with those from the West as well as the East.

Now we know only darkness. My homeland has been under Chinese Communist rule for the past 56 years. Uyghurs, like Buddhists in Tibet, are forbidden to pray or speak freely. When Western reporters talk about how China's political situation is improving alongside rapid economic growth, I know they have not visited East Turkistan. Where I grew up, people today are still being executed for speaking out against injustice. East Turkistan is the only province in the People's Republic of China where people are still being executed for political reasons. Of course, China no longer labels us "counter-revolutionaries" or "American running dogs." Now Beijing calls us terrorists, hoping to legitimize their oppression by describing it as part of China's war on terror.

President Bush is a man whose strongly held personal views are reflected in his policies. He knows about the plight of Uyghur Muslims in East Turkistan, and Tibetan Buddhists in Tibet, and his own religious beliefs lead us to believe that he is particularly sensitive to religious repression everywhere. It was significant that in October 2001, just a month after 9/11, he specifically warned China not to use the fight against terrorism as an excuse to persecute its minorities.

But China's ruling elite wasn't listening. Instead, the government seized the opportunity to advance its campaign to assimilate forcefully Uyghurs into the Chinese culture. Uyghur books were burned, and now we Uyghurs can no longer speak our language in universities (and an increasing number of high schools). It is hard to describe to someone who lives in a free society, particularly in America, which has never been occupied, how it feels not to be able to own and speak your language. Our freedom to practice religion has turned into a privilege regulated by the CCP. Chinese officials recently bragged that three million births in East Turkistan were avoided, meaning that that unborn Uyghur children have been forcibly aborted. In short, the Chinese Communist Party's assault on the existence of the Uyghur nation has been intensified under the banner of China's own war on terror.

Uyghurs who peacefully oppose this injustice are labeled as terrorists. Many who escaped to neighboring countries like Pakistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were returned to China and executed. Uyghurs want peace, freedom, democracy, and human rights, including the right to be Muslim. That is why President Bush's message strikes a chord with Uyghurs.

There are a few glimmers of hope for Uyghurs. In early 2004, the National Endowment for Democracy, the American lifeline for dissidents worldwide, gave my organization, the Uyghur American Association, a grant to begin human-rights research to document human-rights abuses against Uyghurs. In November 2004, Rebiya Kadeer, a Uyghur businesswoman, was awarded the Rafto prize, a prestigious human-rights award. Kadeer was arrested in 1997 while on her way to brief a U.S. congressional delegation on Uyghur human rights. She was finally released by the Chinese authorities on March 17, 2005, on "medical parole," but it was the continued pressure exerted on the Chinese government by the United States and international human-rights organizations — culminating in Secretary of State Rice's visit to Beijing — that truly led to Kadeer's release.

In the past few weeks, the resignation of Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev — one of China's main allies in the persecution of Uyghurs — in the "Tulip Revolution" became the most significant source of hope in recent years for Uyghurs suffering under the oppression of the PRC.

These developments send a message not only to China, but also to Uyghurs. As news of these developments, including the Bush's approach to spreading democracy and freedom around the world, reach Uyghurs in East Turkistan through the congressionally-funded Radio Free Asia, my fellow Uyghurs are offered not only hope, but a connection to the free world.

Nury Turkel is president of the Uyghur American Association.

A 'Period of Emergency and Darkness': A Growing New Alliance Threatens Beijing

A 'Period of Emergency and Darkness': A Growing New Alliance Threatens Beijing

By Nury Turkel

When I was at college in China, I formed strong friendships with several Tibetans, and there was an intimacy and natural trust in these friendships that was simply not there with Chinese students. These personal friendships emerged from a shared experience under Chinese oppression. In the last few years, stronger alliances have been forged between the Tibetan and Uyghur people as a whole, because the fundamental issues facing both people under Chinese occupation – the loss of cultural identity, religious freedoms, political autonomy, and economic marginalization and dominance, are the same.

Party officials in Beijing are profoundly threatened by any ties between its 'minority nationality' peoples that might undermine the Party. The vast Tibetan plateau and the desert oases of Xinjiang, formerly East Turkistan, make up approximately half of the territory of the PRC. They are both of immense strategic significance - Tibet is known as the 'south-western frontier of the motherland' while my homeland shares borders with several former Soviet states as well as Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Both Tibet and East Turkistan are also rich in mineral and natural resources – East Turkistan is reputed to have as much oil as Kuwait.

China controlled most of my homeland, known as East Turkistan since 1949; however China maintained a weak grip until the foundation of Uyghur Autonomous Region in 1955, under the People's Republic of China, and took complete control after Mao Zedong brought the East Turkistan army under the authority of the People's Liberation Army in 1962. Since 1949 the Chinese population in East Turkistan has increased from around 7% to more than 40%. The same has happened in Tibet, and the Dalai Lama has said that the influx of Chinese people is the single biggest threat to Tibet's cultural survival.

For both Tibetans and Uyghurs – a Turkic-speaking people who converted to Islam in the 1300s – this threat has increased dramatically since Beijing's accelerated drive to develop the Western regions of the PRC, including Tibet and East Turkistan. The Chinese domination of the economy in both East Turkistan and Tibet is linked to Beijing's policies of control over its 'minority nationalities'. China's Premier Wen Jiabao said this week that the western development strategy is still one of China's top priorities.

The late Yulo Dawa Tsering, a senior religious teacher in Tibet who served 20 years in prison for the peaceful expression of his views, could have been speaking for Uyghurs too when he referred to the drive to develop the Western regions as representing 'a period of emergency and darkness.'

Since 11 September 2001, Beijing has continued to use the international 'war against terror' to justify harsh repression in East Turkistan, which continues to result in serious human rights violations against the ethnic Uyghur community. The authorities make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of peaceful resistance. There are thousands of political prisoners in East Turkistan, and it is currently the only province in the PRC that continues to execute people for political offences. Repression is targeted at the heart of Uyghur identity, involving the closure of mosques, restrictions on the use of the Uyghur language and the banning of certain Uyghur books and journals. A policy that, since the mid-1990s, has been seen to be effective in silencing many dissenting voices in East Turkistan and Tibet.

Like Tibetans, Uyghurs have been demoralized and undermined by hardline security policies and crackdowns on their culture, language and religion. But equally, for many of us, Chinese rule has intensified our sense of national pride and identity. Uyghurs stand alongside Tibetans by expressing their continued resistance to the Party and government through their language, culture and jokes. It happens everyday; at Uyghur gatherings, over the dinner table. In the Uyghur language, there are so many nuances of expression to convey the subtleties of what is happening. This is one of the reasons for China's ongoing persecution of Uyghur artists, writers and comedians.

There's a well-known joke about the appointment of the new chairman of the so-called Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Jiang Zemin (China's former Party Secretary and President) locks up four Uyghurs in a dark room and touches their heads. He then picks the one with the softest skull. It's a reference to the fact that the Chinese don't care how skilful, talented or knowledgeable Uyghurs are; the most important virtue in a leader is their 'soft head'; their submissiveness to Beijing.

Chinese propaganda depicts Uyghur resistance against the Chinese as 'violent separatism', and the international press has sometimes taken up this theme too, often in contrast to the peaceful resistance of Tibetans. The real picture is much more complex. It is true that there was some reported violent anti-government and anti-Chinese activity in East Turkistan before the mid-1990s. But it is next to impossible to connect known Uyghur separatist organizations with most of the violent incidents inside East Turkistan in recent years, and the frequency of violent activity associated with Uyghur separatism has declined dramatically since the late 1990s. All of the underground networks have been largely broken up and the people disempowered by the coercive mechanisms of the state, which has all served to make any form of overt resistance less likely.

Uyghur political prisoners don't have the same profile as Tibetan political prisoners, partly because security measures are so ruthless and so sophisticated that this information is not reaching the West. In general, it seems that China is much more careful about how it handles the Tibet issue because it remains high on the international political agenda and the situation there is monitored by lobbying organizations and activists all over the world who take every opportunity to make representations on behalf of the Tibetan people.

It is also because the Tibetans, both those who continue to resist and those choose to conform to the ways of the Chinese regime, have the leadership of the Dalai Lama. Even though we don't have any religious attachment to the Dalai Lama, I know that Uyghur people admire him greatly. On an international level, he has unified Tibetans both in Tibet and in exile. We admire his dedication and the sacrifices he has made for his people, in the way he lives his life. He has provided the noblest example of peaceful resistance.

The future for the Uyghur people, and indeed Tibetans, is very much linked to the international climate. As an emerging global economic power, China has an increasing need for energy resources and is challenging the only world superpower, the US, with its developing influence in Asia, the Islamic world, Europe. There is simply no precedent in world history for the Chinese state today. But it is becoming clearer that even as the Party leadership tightens its grip, its legitimacy is under challenge from its own people, and its political system is ultimately fragile. Today, it is ever more important for Uyghur people to strengthen their political and economic ties with Tibetans facing the same threat from China. We need to hold fast to our language and our culture during this darkest time of our history.


This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in 'Incomparable Warriors: Non-violent resistance in Tibet today' published by the International Campaign for Tibet,

Nury Turkel, who was born in Kashgar, is a lawyer and President of the Uyghur American Association in Washington DC.

People Power Sends a Message To Oppressive Regimes

April 21, 2005
Wall Street Journal

China watched nervously as Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev was toppled from power by a disenchanted populace last month. The resurgence of people power in the sequence of "colored revolutions" in the post-Soviet states -- Kyrgyzstan's tulip revolution followed the orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the rose revolution in Georgia in 2003 -- has brought unprecedented hope to the more than 10 million strong Uighur population of East Turkistan. Now called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the province lies on China's northwestern frontier and is an area of immense geopolitical and strategic significance.

As demonstrators stormed Mr. Akayev's offices in Bishkek and he fled to Moscow, Uighur people in East Turkistan listened to news of the unfolding of events on clandestine Radio Free Asia broadcasts. Mr. Akayev's resignation became the only significant source of hope in recent years for Uighurs suffering under the oppression of the Beijing, and also for hundreds of thousands of Uighurs facing persecution in exile in China's neighbors among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- in particular Kyrgyzstan, one of the most important centers of the Uighur diaspora.

Uighurs, a Turkic, Sunni Muslim people, have close cultural, historical and linguistic ties to other ethnic groups in the Eurasian continent, including the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Turkish, Azeri and Tatar people. The most high-profile Uighur dissident, Rebiya Kadeer, was released last month from political imprisonment in China. Now in Washington, D.C. on medical parole after serving five years of an eight year sentence in East Turkistan's capital, Urumchi, she said: "When I heard the news about what happened in Kyrgyzstan, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep. Whatever happens to our brothers and sisters in Kyrgyzstan affects people in East Turkistan."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Beijing has used the international war on terror to justify harsh repression in East Turkistan. The authorities make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of peaceful resistance and frequently brand Uighurs as "separatists, terrorists and religious extremists." According to Amnesty International, thousands of Uighurs have been detained for political reasons, and many have suffered severe torture. It continues to execute people for political offences. Repression is targeted at the heart of Uighur identity, involving the closure of mosques, restrictions on the use of the Uighur language and the banning of certain Uighur books and journals. Even Uighurs in the government or working for the Communist Party have been disturbed by the intensification of repression since Sept. 11.

Central Asian governments, and in particular Kyrgyzstan, have sought to increase economic cooperation and strategic ties with Beijing by conspiring in the crackdown on Uighurs -- an alliance that is legitimized through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Under Mr. Akayev, Kyrgyzstan had arguably been the most cooperative with Beijing of all the SCO countries. Beijing's aim is to maintain firm control over East Turkistan, and to strengthen China's influence in the important Central Asian region, vital in terms of access to energy resources and as a counter-balance to Washington and Moscow's interests.

Under Mr. Akayev's leadership, Uighurs who had fled oppression in China "disappeared" in Kyrgyzstan and were often forcibly returned to China, where some were executed. Key Uighur leaders have been assassinated in suspicious circumstances, and many Uighur prisoners are held in prison in Bishkek and elsewhere in the region, serving long sentences for offences known to be political.

These efforts have duly been acknowledged by Beijing. During an official visit to Bishkek last September, China's Premier Wen Jiabao expressed thanks for Mr. Akayev's assistance in Beijing's efforts against so-called "East Turkistani separatism and terrorism."

Under Mr. Akayev, the activities of the main Uighur cultural organization in Kyrgyzstan, Ittipak (meaning "unity") were restricted. But already there are signs of change. Within weeks of his fall from power, my organization, the Uighur American Association, which advocates democracy for Uighurs, was invited to meet the new government by a Kyrgyz human-rights organization based in Vienna, Austria and we hope to travel to Bishkek shortly. This is part of an effort to encourage the new leaders to establish alliances with members of civil society and non-governmental organizations.

We hope that not only will a democratic Kyrgyz society provide protection to citizens' rights, but that it will also allow Uighur citizens to participate in government -- the involvement of people of different ethnicities in their governments is a litmus-test of emerging democracies that we are witnessing in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Members of the new leadership have stated publicly that Kyrgyzstan will continue to develop its foreign policy in line with the status quo and that China is an important economic partner and friend. Even so, while in opposition, many of these leaders had an anti-China platform. Some of them even took the risk of criticizing Mr. Akayev's government, while he was in power, for violating international law by forcibly deporting Uighur political activists to China.

While it is too soon to predict the consequences of Mr. Akayev's fall from power for the people of Kyrgyzstan and East Turkistan, it is certain that the most critical test for the new Kyrgyz government in reconfiguring their political future is its relationship with Beijing. The new leaders of the tulip revolution must be acutely aware that events of the past month in Kyrgyzstan send a strong message to the oppressive regimes in the region with zero tolerance for political dissent -- particularly China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Turkel is a lawyer and president of the Uighur American Association in Washington, D.C.

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