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.

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