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"For a happier, more stable and civilized future, each of us must develop a sincere, warm-hearted feeling of brotherhood and sisterhood."

China's forgotten people

August 10, 2008

Amy Reger
The New Statesman (UK)
August 8, 2008

This week's terror attack in China has brought an intense barrage of
publicity to the Uighurs. Amy Reger writes that one violent act does
not represent more than 10 million people

In the tiny offices of the Uyghur American Association/Uyghur Human
Rights Project, our phones have rung off the hook since Monday
morning. Journalists from four continents have called to hear our
comments regarding Monday's attack in Kashgar, East Turkestan, in
which 16 border police were killed. Chinese government authorities
are reporting that the attack was carried out by two young Uighur
men, a fruit vendor and a taxi driver. Acts of this nature threaten
to undermine the progress we have made in peaceful Uighur human
rights advocacy in a single blow. They also threaten to instantly
reduce the Uighur people and their rich cultural tapestry into a
one-dimensional image of violence in the minds of millions.

While we welcome all media inquiries, it is unfortunate that an
appalling, violent act such as this has been the impetus for an
unprecedented level of interest in Uighurs and in our organization,
which is dedicated to peacefully promoting human rights and democracy
for the Uighur people. It is a tragedy that for most people around
the world hearing news of the attack, this is the first time they
will have ever heard of the Uighur people - and now, in their minds,
the word "Uighur" will be associated with violence and the word
"terrorism" that is splashed across the headlines of the world's
newspapers. Unsubstantiated links to Al-Qaeda proffered by China's
official media have been widely re-published in many Western news
reports -the suggested linkage is too newsworthy to ignore, yet at
the same time impossible for deadline-pressed media to independently check out.

Unfortunately for Uighurs, they live in a world where their belief in
Islam, despite their strongly pro-Western attitudes and the
traditionally moderate practice of their faith, unfairly brands them
as a group that is prone to violence and fundamentalism. Moreover,
the Chinese government has exploited the demonization of Islam and
the "global war on terror" in order to justify its heavy-handed
repression of millions of Uighurs. China's propaganda apparatus has
become increasingly sophisticated at projecting an image on the world
stage of a major, well-organized Uighur terrorist threat, which helps
to crowd out discussion of the decades-long history of human rights
abuses visited upon the Uighurs.

The more than ten million Uighurs of East Turkestan face human rights
abuses nearly identical to those faced by Tibetans; arbitrary
detention and imprisonment, religious repression, economic and
educational discrimination, and the steady eradication of their
language and culture from public life and institutions. While many
people around the world have some knowledge of the suffering of the
Tibetan people (thanks to decades of courageous advocacy on the part
of Tibetans and their supporters), and a sympathetic view of
Buddhism, relatively few have heard of the Uighurs and their plight,
and their religion makes it easy for people to accept Chinese
government assertions about Muslim "extremism" among Uighurs. In
addition, the Chinese government frequently applies the "terrorist"
label to Uighurs where it would use the term "separatist" to describe
Tibetans or other groups.

The Uighur American Association's small staff faces a daunting
challenge -- how to compete with a relentless Chinese government
propaganda machine, and attempt to inform the world about human
rights abuses committed against a people they've probably never heard
of except in relation to a violent act. We must also attempt to
ensure that no one misinterprets our human rights advocacy as an
attempt to downplay or justify a terrible act of aggression. We face
an uphill battle against facile sensationalism, exploited by the
Chinese government; we are also competing against a sea of Olympic
puff-pieces and "colour stories" produced by multi-million-dollar
television news outlets. Relatively few news outlets dare to venture
out of comfortable territory to produce nuanced pieces on Uighurs or
similarly non-traditional subjects.

However, facing a much graver set of circumstances are the Uighur
people in East Turkestan themselves, and particularly Uighurs in
Kashgar, who are now being subjected to even greater intimidation and
persecution than ever before. We have reliable reports of Uighurs
being summarily rounded up in one area of Kashgar in the past week;
police going door-to-door in Uighur neighborhoods and checking
everyone's identity papers; the closure of at least one mosque in the
city, and the stepped-up blockage of Internet access.

In recent months in East Turkestan, Uighurs' passports have been
almost universally confiscated by authorities; large numbers of
Uighurs have been evicted from major cities in East Turkestan,
including those who had legal rights to stay in those cities; and at
least one mosque was destroyed, apparently due to parishioners'
refusal to post Olympics slogans on its walls. In addition, Uighurs
in East Turkistan have been told to avoid contact with foreigners,
especially foreign journalists, and Uighur imams have been ordered to
undergo "political education" regarding the Olympics.

Many Uighurs who had been living in Beijing have been forced to leave
the city, and official directives have been issued to hotels and
guesthouses throughout Beijing not to permit Uighurs to stay there.

On July 9, five young Uighurs were shot to death without warning by
police in the regional capital of Urumchi, in a raid on an alleged
"holy war training group." On the same day, following a mass
sentencing rally in Kashgar, two Uyghurs were executed and 15 others
were handed sentences ranging from 10 years in prison to death on
unsubstantiated terror-related charges. Schoolchildren were among the
10,000 Uighurs forced to attend the rally.

Since 2001, using "terrorism" as a justification, the Chinese
government has undertaken a renewed, systematic, and sustained
crackdown on all forms of Uyghur dissent. Those targeted in this
crackdown include two sons of Uighur freedom movement leader Rebiya
Kadeer, Alim and Ablikim Abdureyim, serving lengthy prison sentences
because of their mother's Uighur human rights advocacy (Ms. Kadeer is
president of the Uyghur American Association); Nurmemet Yasin, a
young intellectual imprisoned for writing a story about a pigeon that
authorities deemed subversive; and schoolteacher Abdulghani
Memetemin, imprisoned for providing documentation of human rights
abuses to an overseas group.

While the Chinese government promotes an image of itself as a nation
unified in ethnic brotherhood, in the manner of the Olympic slogan
"One World, One Dream," it is simultaneously demonizing the Uighur
people as a whole. It has every right to condemn a violent attack on
its soil, and to secure itself against the threat of violence and
terrorism throughout the PRC. But the killings in Kashgar should not
be used as an excuse to continue and even intensify egregious human
rights abuses in East Turkestan. They should also not be used as a
vehicle to exacerbate tensions between Han Chinese and Uighurs.

The international community should also refrain from judging the
Uighur people as a whole on the actions of a tiny minority. We urge
readers to learn more about the Uighur people and their rich Turkic
heritage and culture; to visit East Turkestan if you are traveling to
China to attend the Olympics; and to educate yourself about the
harsh, government-sponsored suppression that is threatening to
eradicate Uighurs' culture and way of life.

Amy Reger is principal researcher for the Uyghur American
Association's Uyghur Human Rights Project, based in Washington, D.C.
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