Dec 13, 2004

East Turkestan: Uighur minority in Uzbekistan demands more political rights

"For our father, President Islam Karimov, there is no such nation as Uighurs in Uzbekistan"
div align="justify">For our father [President Islam Karimov] there is no such nation as Uighurs in Uzbekistan," Dilshad (not his real name), a 29-year-old Uighur, told IRIN in the capital, Tashkent.

Uighurs are a Turkic, Sunni Muslim people, with close cultural and linguistic ties to other ethnic groups in Central Asia, including Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uzbeks and Turkmen.

"I will never be chair of our department because I am an ethnic Uighur," said another ethnic Uighur who works in one of the government bodies.

Uzbekistan is one of the most homogenous states in Central Asia, where according to official statistics, Uzbeks comprise more than 75 percent of the country's 25 million population.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan started the policy of nation-state building, which resulted in the fact that Uzbeks became dominant over ethnic minorities, local observers say.

Although Uighurs have been living in the country for centuries, there are no official statistics regarding their number in the former Soviet republic. Latest Soviet statistics available indicate that there were 37,000 Uighurs in Uzbekistan before 1991, however many Uighur activists say the real number is much higher. The majority of Uighurs live in major cities, including Tashkent and Andijan, as well as Tashkent province.

"We cannot say the exact number of Uighurs living in Uzbekistan, we sent letters to provincial administrations to count this number," Sultanmurad aka, the chair of the Uighur Cultural Centre of Uzbekistan, told IRIN in Tashkent.

The issue of the Uighur Diaspora is very sensitive due to close relations between Tashkent and Beijing. The emergence of five newly independent states in Central Asia following the collapse of the Soviet Union stimulated a separatist movement among the Uighur minority in neighbouring China's Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR).

Since the 11 September attacks on the US, Chinese officials have portrayed Uighur radicals in Xinjiang as separatists and terrorists with links to a range of extremist Islamic groups throughout Central Asia, pressing regional countries to exert tighter control over their Uighur minorities.

Earlier this year, Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Tashkent to participate in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit. The SCO is a regional security and cooperation body comprising China, Russia and the ex-Soviet Central Asian republics except Turkmenistan.

During this visit, the two presidents signed a joint statement on further developing partnership between the two countries.

According to the statement, China and Uzbekistan agreed that terrorism, separatism and extremism still pose a major threat to regional security and stability. "China and Uzbekistan will continue to adopt powerful measures to fight all forms of terrorism, including terrorism waged by the so-called East Turkistan terrorist groups, the statement said.

While the situation with regard to Uighurs in other Central Asian states is more liberal, where they can establish political, human rights organisations and different foundations, Uighurs in Uzbekistan are deprived of those rights. There is no Uighur political organisation in Uzbekistan," Sultanmurad aka conceded.

Compared with their ethnic brethren in other Central Asian states, Uighurs in Uzbekistan are only allowed to work in the area of culture and the Uighur Cultural Centre is the main body in that sphere.

"The main aim of our organisation [Uighur cultural Centre] is preserving our language and culture. This year we invited the Uighur Theatre from Kazakhstan, thus we started to communicate with other Uighur cultural organisations from other Central Asian states, Sultanmurad aka said.

The centre also started opening its branches in places where Uighurs live. "We have 260 Uighur families. We try and preserve our language and traditions, though our children have started to speak in Uzbek. It is really good that now we have a branch of the Uighur Centre, we hope to open Uighur language classes here with its help," Farhad Usmonov, newly elected head of the branch of Uighur Cultural Centre in Uchhoz village, Tashkent province, told IRIN.

Uighur classes are taught in Kim Pen Hva village, 50 km from Tashkent. "In our village there are 127 Uighur families, we have Uighur language classes," Kiyim aka, a local community leader, told IRIN.

Now Uighurs have a higher profile, we feel that there is more attention towards us, an Uighur leader told IRIN. "If we can use the current government policy towards minorities correctly, we can get huge benefits, he said.

However, many ethnic Uighurs are still afraid to speak out or to be identified. When asked about the issue of Uighurs in the country they constantly avoid talking about it.

But some are optimistic. "I hope that in the future Uighurs will not disappear in Uzbekistan and our children can say they are Uighurs," Ahmad aka, an elderly Uighur, told IRIN, looking at his children.