East Turkestan is the English name for an occasionally independent region occupied by China since it invaded in 1949. In Manchu Chinese it is known as Xinjiang, which means "new frontier", a phrase which belies its extrinsic nature to China. For the Turkic peoples that live beyond this "new frontier", the country is known as "Sharqi Turkistan" which translates to "Eastern Land of the Turks." The country is largely desert with towns built around oasises that were, in ancient times, important stops on the Silk Road.
The population of the region is mainly made up of Turkic peoples, the largest group being the Uyghurs (less commonly spelled Uighur, Uighur, Uygur or Uigu). Most Uyghurs feel more culturally aligned with their Turkic brethren to the West than the Beijing goverment of the East which currently controls the region. However, as with Tibet, China is attempting to dilute the region's culture and ethnicity by inundating it with Han immigrants lured by economic incentives and an apartheid system that favors them over the indigenous population. In 1949, when China invaded, the region was 75% Uyghur. As of 2003 it had been diluted to 45%. Ironically, identity in the region was largely based on the particular oasis communities and a strong coalescence based on a common, Turkic identity only really began in response to Chinese repression and occupation.
Under the Chinese occupation, China enjoys access to East Turkestan's substantial natural resources and vast space. Nuclear weapons testing was conducted there from the 60s to the 90s. In return, the Uyghurs get little. The areas where they are the majority remain comparatively under-developed. It has the highest HIV rate in China. Mandarin is compulsory in schools. Men who work in the government sector aren't allowed to wear beards and women are denied to right to wear head scarves. Only those over 18 are allowed to attend mosques, which are controlled by the Chinese government- who only allow a state-approved version of the Qu'ran. As with neighboring Tibet (and similarly oppressed Inner Mongolia), China argues that East Turkestan is an integral part of the country even though they somehow prospered for thousands of years without it. China, no doubt, made the same arguments about Mongolia (which was occupied by China from 1691-1911) but they seem to be coping rather well with that country's independence.
Any mention of human rights is likely to be met with imprisonment, torture and sometimes death usually in the name of the aggressor-defined "War On Terror" which has widely been used by repressive regimes to crack down on their citizens' freedoms (including here in the U.S, Turkey and Russia.) China has imposed a military presence nominally to crack down on terrorists but, in reality, to squelch any mention of human rights.
Take the example of Husein Celil, a Canadian citizen and Uyghur. He was arrested in 2006 ib Uzbekistan on terrorism charges- a charge which he denies saying he merely spoke out on the basic rights of Uyghurs. He was subesquently sentenced to life imprisonment. Canadian authorities have been denied contact with him and his whereabouts are unknown, as is whether or not he is even alive.
China's horrible human rights records goes back much further than the beginnings of the War On Terror. In 1962, 60,000 Uighurs fled to the Soviet Union to escape murderous political purges and the famine brought on by Mao Zedong's disastrous "Great Leap Forward." In 1990, in what is known as the Baren Township Riot, a Uighur uprising resulted in 50 deaths at the hands of the Chinese. In 1997, a crackdown following the so-called Ghulja Incident resulted in at least 9 deaths.
In the fall of 2001, the US military dropped leaflets offering "millions of dollars" to anyone who would turn in "murderers". They went on to promise "enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.” In response, 22 Uyghurs were rounded up and sold to the US. Finding the Uyghurs innocent of any wrongdoing, the US promised to free them. In May 2006, five Uyghurs were released to a refugee camp in Albania. The remaining 17 are “cleared for release but have nowhere to go" and still are detained in Guantanamo Bay.
The Chinese, for their part, have rounded up far more. According to the state-run Xinjiang Daily, in 2005, 18,227 individuals were arrested in East Turkestan for endangering state security.
Even though Tibet and East Turkestan are in similarly dismal situations at the hands of the Chinese, the media devotes almost all of its attention to Tibet. In response, the world community has focused its efforts (through music festivals, benefits, bumper stickers, films and documentaries) on China's abuses in Tibet instead of on their abuses across the board. In other words, the focus seems to be on equality for Tibetans instead of equality for all- a disparity made apparent by the media's nearly complete silence on Tibet's larger, more populous neighbor that China invaded just two years earlier than Tibet.
Rebiya Kadeer spent five years in a Chinese prison for "subversion" which stems from making remarks like "His Holiness the Dalai Lama has dedicated his entire life to the peaceful promotion of legitimate aspirations of the Tibetan people for cultural autonomy and survival," "The world community cannot turn a blind eye to the obstinate refusal of the Beijing regime to fully engage in open, serious and meaningful negotiations with leaders of Tibet and East Turkestan." In 2000 she received an 8 year sentence for "endangering national security." In a compromise with the U.S. she was exiled.
Dolkun Aysa, chairman of the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe and general secretary of the World Uyghur Congress spoke in Munich last month stating, "We are cooperating with Tibetans to organize demonstrations expressing our full support for the Tibetan people, while at the same time informing the public and the media regarding the existence of the same problems, the same political reality and the same suffering of the Uyghur people in Eastern Turkestan.
Now that China is to host the Olympics, Tibet is again frequently in the news. Supporters of China argue that political discussion has no place in the Olympics, apparently and conveniently forgetting their own Ping Pong Diplomacy sports-and-politics efforts in the 70s which aimed to warm ties with the US before Nixon's visit.
Murat Nasyrov was a famous Uyghur musician who committed suicide last year. Below is a clip of a Uyghur beauty contest set to one of his songs.
If you want to learn more about Uyghurs' struggles and East Turkestan, don't go to your TV (unless you get al Jazeera). Instead, check out these links:
Uyghur Human Rights Project, East Turkistan Information Center, Turkistanim.org, Uyghur American Association, Uyghur Congress, and Uyghur News.
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