Friday, April 13, 2012

The Uyghur Question: Violence not the way..

A Hard fought battle...

Twenty years ago the world knew little of the Uyghurs of Xinjiang China. 

Most international Human Rights attention was focused on China's so called “One Child Policy” and the “Tibetan Issue”, the latter as a result of an enigmatic spiritual leader, a western romantic image of monks in saffron robes meditating in Shangri-la and a Hollywood star, all things the “Uyghur Question” did not have going for it to become a cause celebre.

The catalyst for the seeping to the west of greater information regarding modern day Xinjiang and the Uyghurs was China's 'opening up' and the resultant relaxation of foreign tourist restrictions in  the mid 80's which, combined with improvements in travel, made Xinjiang far more desirable and accessible to foreigners.

Informational websites about Xinjiang travel and Uyghur culture and history began to appear, one of the first, the highly popular “Lonely Planet” did much to make Central Asia a 'must see' destination at the time. 

As well, greater academic attention was able to be paid to the region. Three academics that stand out in my mind from that time were Professors Dru Gladney, an American, Colin Mackkaras, an Australian and, a then Ph.D. student from Ohio, Nathan Light, who, at one stage, had the most highly ranked website on the Internet concerning the Uyghur.

A violent incident Baren 1990 and another in Ghulja in 1997, both which the Chinese ruthlessly suppressed, brought about  the springing up of several Uyghur “exile” groups and websites, some purely news based but others representing to varying degrees issues of Uyghur 'nationalism' as well as highlighting Chinese government policies adversely affecting the Uyghur people.

9/11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” provided further discussion/rallying points for the “Uyghur Issue” particularly as China successfully sort to have a little known Uyghur group branded an “International Terrorist Organisation” and several dozen Uyghurs were caught up in the American Coalition intervention in Afghanistan.

Radio Free Asia and to a lesser degree Asia Times Online must be given a lot of kudos as they were very important conduits for bringing the Uyghur cause to a wider wider western audience in the 1990's, particularly American, . Amnesty International was one Human Rights Organisation that gave the issue increasing attention through this period.

Thus, as we entered the second decade of the 21st century the “Uyghur Question” had become widely known. It had the attention of the world press, think tanks, most western governments and all HRO's.

It has been a hard fought battle for Uyghurs and their international supporters to have raised the “Uyghur Question” to a level where today it is arguably equal to that of the “Tibet issue” in top of mind awareness concerning China Human Rights issues.

The west, as a result of this tireless effort, has come to more fully appreciate the problems faced by the Uyghurs in China and the visibility of the cause has continued to rise despite such things as the anti-Muslim backlash post 9/11, and the Chinese Regime's constant rhetoric concerning “Islamic fundamentalism” “terrorism” and “separatism”, utilised as a means of masking or justifying the harsh policies and crackdowns on Uyghur religion, identity and culture.

A possible surrender..

All this achievement, however, runs the very serious risk of coming undone if a recent set of incidents are representative of a new and what would be a very disturbing trend in Uyghur interaction with the Han Chinese.

Uyghur/Han relations go back some two thousand years. In that period these two ethnic groups have run the whole gamut of relations, from extreme violence, perpetrated upon each other, to being allies in wars and vigorous trading partners.

Whilst there is no doubt that racial tensions have always existed and have resulted in occasional racially motivated crimes being committed by Uyghurs on the Han, including murder, the frequency would be no greater than similar crimes in some western countries.

The greater majority of serious incidents, post 1949, that have resulted in Han deaths have been as a result of response by Uyghurs to very specific Chinese government actions and generally has been directed against figures of authority, that is, non civilian targets such as police and soldiers. Without exception  all incidents have resulted ultimately in far greater casualties, fatalities and deaths by judicial means, being sustained by the Uyghurs than the Han Chinese.

The exceptions to this have been the Urumqi riots in 2009, two incidents in Kashgar in July 2011 and the recent Uyghur rampage in Yecheng. In these incidents the very serious violence witnessed  had been initiated by Uyghurs and the targets have been innocent, unarmed Han Chinese civilians, including women and children.

These incidents can not be directly attributable to specific Chinese government actions nor to religious, independence/separatist/terrorist /political motivations, nor are they seemingly organised or seriously planned. They are, without ifs or buts, spontaneous, racially motivated crimes of the most heinous nature, in terms of both the violence used and the number of casualties.

If what we have witnessed since 2009 is in fact a trend developing than all the good work done by so many will come undone very rapidly. The Uyghur cause that has taken over twenty years to be brought to the level of international attention that it now enjoys, and deserves, will be blown away like a dust storm on the Taklamakan.

This will be especially seen in stark contrast to Tibetan self immolations as a method of anti-government protest,  juxtapose to mass murders by Uyghur elements. 

Sympathy, I can assure you, will not side with the Uyghur and perhaps all the Chinese Regime's rhetoric as to terrorism, religious fundamentalism and fanaticism may start to strike a chord of doubt as to the veracity of the 'cause' in the minds of some regardless of the lack of credibility  of these dispersions.

The Chinese government, notwithstanding the recent elevation in the worlds eye of the Uyghur cause, still hold the whip hand in Xinjiang. It is still seemingly impervious to international scrutiny and condemnation, and, as such, any loss of international support for the Uyghur cause will undoubtedly buoy the regime further to more quickly, and by whatever means deemed expedient, finish the work they have been engaged in since 1949, that is, the eradication of the Uyghur as a culture within China.

A bugle call ….

Why all this is happening now is a question I believe no-one is in a position to answer. Of course certain organisations have alluded to the “build up of frustrations” of “pent up rage” in attempt to somehow mitigate what has transpired, but murder, and that is what we are speaking of here, can not be so mitigated. There can be no excuse for the viciousness of these crimes

If this pattern is a trend in the making it must be stopped dead in it's tracks. In the words of the famous, Uyghur Nationalist and exile activist, the late Erkin Alptekin:

“We must emphasise dialogue and warn our youth against the use of violence because it de-legitimises our movement”

But unlike the Tibetans the Uyghur have no one person or group that is universally recognised as providing overall leadership. In fact the “Uyghur” is such an non- homogeneous construct and Chinese control so iron-fisted that such an “Uyghur leader” is unlikely to be found from within. It should be up to more localised 'leaders', secular or religious, from village, town of prefecture level to reign in those within their purview but, given the Chinese government's total iron-fisted control, this is not going to happen as the likelihood of retribution for any who attempt so is a non sequitar.

Uyghur exile groups such as the World Uyghur Congress and Uyghur American Association et al, are not performing this leadership role. Unfortunately, their response to such incidents has been 'knee jerk'. Instead of recognising these incidents for what they are , that is very serious crimes, and immediately calling on Uyghurs to refrain from such actions in the strongest possible terms, as Erkin Alptekin had done previously, they have, nonsensically, attempted to somehow mitigate the events by falling back on old cliches of “pent up frustrations' etc.

This response plays directly into the hands of the Chinese Regime as a recent Global Times article would attest. (Uyghur refuse the label of terrorists' scapegoats

Violence as a response to Chinese policies must not exist in the lexicon of the “Uyghur Question”. Violence against Han civilians is a criminal act, it is not the act of a proud and ancient people but the act of cowards within.

It must be railed against by all actors in the 'Uyghur Question', from Uyghur exiles groups, to the likes of you and I, and it must be done so in the strongest and most unequivocal terms.

The message must somehow be relayed to those elements of Uyghur society who see violence as being justified, be it against Chinese government policy or some perceived 'market place' slight, that this is not the way forward in saving the Uyghur identity, culture and spirit.

We all will do the Uyghur cause no justice by ignoring or attempting to justify such violent response against Han civilians. If we follow that path, either actively or even passively, we give up the moral high ground we have fought so hard and for so long to gain and we play directly into the Regime's hands.

No comments: