On July 7, some of us from the International Campaign for Tibet went to participate in the rally in Washington, D.C., organized by the Uyghur American Association to draw attention to the Chinese government’s crackdown on the Uyghur demonstrators in Urumchi (Chinese: Urumqi) and other places in Eastern Turkestan (Chinese: Xinjiang).
The atmosphere was charged and passions were high. I could feel a deep sense of hurt and anger among the Uyghur people. Rebiya Kadeer, who is increasingly establishing herself as the leader of the Uyghur people internationally, was her vocal self, but her demeanor reflected the sadness that she was feeling. Quite many of them, including several young Uyghurs, were in tears as they tried to express their sorrow. A colleague mentioned to me that this reminded her of how the Tibetans felt last year after the series of demonstrations in Tibet.
Indeed, what is happening in Eastern Turkestan these days is in many ways similar to what happened in Tibet last year. While the immediate causes were different and are tangentially connected to the root cause, in both cases, the outbursts of the Uyghurs and the Tibetans are the result of pent up resentments and grievances.
Another similarity was something that I heard a Uyghur man tell a journalist at the rally. He said that the development in Eastern Turkestan and the Chinese government’s reaction to the same have helped in uniting the Uyghur people as one. The pan-Tibetan demonstrations last year were very solid indications of this unity among the Tibetan people. Al Jazeera reported today from the region quoting a Uyghur woman saying that the basic problem was the lack of equality, something that the Tibetans have also been highlighting.
Yet another common issue is that of population transfer. The Uyghurs were pointing to the heavy presence of Chinese in their region that has resulted in their marginalization, similar to how the Tibetans have been warning about the threat posed to the survival of the Tibetan identity on account of the influx of non-Tibetans to Tibet.
Even some of the actions of the Chinese government in dealing with the developments in Tibet and Eastern Turkestan were similar. In the immediate aftermath of the first Uyghur demonstration, the authorities resorted to blaming forces abroad, specifically Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress, for the same. Then, despite the atmosphere being tense and, the imposition of a curfew in the case of Urumchi, the authorities continued to project an air of normalcy. It was called “an isolated incident” and the handiwork of a few criminals. But as I write this (and it is a developing story) I heard that President Hu Jintao had to shorten his trip to the G8 summit to deal with the situation at home, that 20,000 troops have been sent to the region and that authorities are issuing stringent warning of executing the responsible people just as a way to scare the people. All these indicate that that the Chinese government has much more to deal than an “isolated incident.”
There are some developments that are not similar between the Uyghurs and the Tibetans. For one, the Islamic world has taken the initiative to show their concern at the plight of the Uyghurs, who are all Muslims by faith. In the past two days, Organization of Islamic conference (OIC) has issued two statements relating to the developments in Eastern Turkestan, which includes a political message to the Chinese government of their desire to play a role in creating “a climate of peace and stability in the region.” The statements also criticized the Chinese government’s use of force saying, “The great number of casualties among civilians indicates that the principle of proportionality of the use of force and fire arms was not observed.” “According to the international basic principle on the use of force and fir arms, law enforcement officials should resort to non-lethal methods in confronting civilian riots,” the statement of July 7, 2009, added.
The second OIC statement, dated July 8, 2009, touched on the root cause of the current unrest among the Uyghur people. The OIC Secretary General, the statement said, “expressed his belief that the chronic problem facing the Uygur people in the Autonomous Region in China could not be solved through security measure alone. They are a distinct people looking to assert their cultural and ethnic characteristic and Muslim identity and to enjoy their inalienable cultural and economic rights. This kind of problem can only be solved through dialogue.”
The OIC is the “collective voice of the Muslim world” and most of its 57 member-states are non-Western countries. Thus an OIC statement is important because so far one of the ways the Chinese government has been avoiding to address issues like that of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs is by saying that they are being backed by “Western anti-China forces.”
The authorities also seem to have learned some lessons from the Tibetan experience of last year. This time, access given to the international media was comparatively better. Similarly, the government, specifically the Party Secretary of Urumchi, is calling upon the Han people to “show restraint,” implying that they are also involved. In the case of Tibet last year, the Chinese government laid the blame solely on the Tibetans and projected them as anti-Chinese.
In any case, I don’t know how this situation in Eastern Turkestan will end eventually. I hope better sense will prevail in Beijing. This October, it will mark the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.