The massacre of Uighur demonstrators in the cities of Urumqi and Kashgar has been reported in every language, from English to Chinese to Portuguese to Arabic. While the intense repression against Uighurs is normally ignored by both the Chinese Government and the international media, the deaths of hundreds of protesters and the injuries of hundreds more has exposed the brutality of Chinese government actions toward Uighurs in a way that cannot be ignored.
Instead of taking action to recognise the cause of Uighurs’ demonstrations, or to acknowledge that the problems in East Turkestan [known by the Chinese as Xinjiang] derive from the Chinese Government’s inability to resolve discontent, Chinese officials have resorted to blaming “outside forces”, including me and one of the organisations I lead, the World Uighur Congress. Just as Chinese officials placed the blame for widespread demonstrations in Tibet on the Dalai Lama, they claim that overseas Uighur organisations “instigated” the demonstrations in East Turkestan. I in no way organised or called for any demonstrations.
I condemn the violence that has been carried out against the Uighur people. I also condemn the violence some Uighur demonstrators have committed. I am absolutely opposed to all forms of violence, and believe it is only through dialogue and attempts at mutual understanding that we may achieve peace.
At this point, it is impossible to confirm the exact number of those killed and injured. The organisations I lead have received reports from witnesses inside East Turkestan that more than 400 Uighur demonstrators were killed in the regional capital of Urumqi.
On Sunday, July 5, students in Urumqi began marching in the streets in a peaceful demonstration against the recent killing of Uighur workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province, in southern China. According to Radio Free Asia interviews of Uighurs working at the factory, a mob of Chinese workers and gang members from the local area stormed into the dormitory housing Uighurs, beating them and hacking at them with machetes. The attack was carried out in response to an unsubstantiated rumour that Uighur workers had sexually assaulted two Chinese workers.
According to the official Chinese media, two Uighurs were killed, but reports from Uighur factory workers who witnessed the mob attack say the number is much higher.
Had the top two government officials in East Turkestan taken steps to address the killings in Guangdong, together with local officials, the protest in Urumqi might never have happened. However, these officials were clearly not interested in investigating abuses against Uighurs, or in examining what caused the attack in Guangdong.
Uighur discontent over Chinese government policy started long before the killings in Guangdong. Under six decades of rule by the Government of the People’s Republic of China, Uighurs have been slowly suffocating from official policies aimed at eliminating our Turkic culture and mystical brand of Islam — much in the same way as official policies have destroyed the culture and customs of Tibetans. The killing and injuring of Uighur workers in Guangdong, and the lack of a transparent, just government response, was only the latest in a long line of abuses committed against Uighurs, though a particularly egregious one.
I have experienced first-hand the repression of Uighurs, through my own imprisonment and the imprisonment of two of my sons, Alim and Ablikim Abdureyim. Alim and Ablikim are currently serving lengthy prison sentences in Urumchi, in clear retaliation for my international human rights advocacy. There are reports that they have been tortured in prison, and that they have not been treated for serious medical ailments.
I was imprisoned from 1999 until 2005 for using my position as a delegate to a top Chinese governmental body to call upon the Chinese Government to change its policies toward Uighurs. Unfortunately, there is no place within Chinese officialdom for the expression of concern over ethnic policies. While in prison, I was subject to extended periods of solitary confinement and medical neglect. But far more horrifying were the times I was forced to witness torture of my fellow prisoners — those without an official government position, or the support of groups such as Amnesty International.
I am extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to live a free life in the United States, beginning in 2005. Unfortunately, my fellow Uighurs left behind in East Turkestan face severe discrimination in the areas of healthcare and employment, as well as religious repression, forced abortion, and the removal of Uighur as a language in schools at all levels of instruction.
Uighur resentment at government policy has only intensified with the razing of an ancient centre for Uighur culture: the Old City of Kashgar. The Old City, which has served as a cradle of Uighur civilisation for centuries and which was an important stop on the Silk Road, is being reduced to rubble, and its population of 220,000 Uighurs is being forcibly moved to cinderblock apartments on the outskirts of the city. Uighurs were not given a voice in the project, and are being forced to watch in silence as their homes, and their history, are bulldozed away.
This crescendo of the destruction of Uighurs’ culture is what brought Uighurs to the streets. Though they must have known they would be subjected to extreme force, the Uighurs’ desperation seems to have outweighed their fear. Theirs was a desperate call to be heard, in the face of an authoritarian regime that crushes any dissent. Theirs was a call for freedom and justice.
Rubiya Kadeer, the author of the forthcoming book Dragon Fighter.