Jun 18, 2008

East Turkestan: “Harmonious Society”, at What Price?

Active ImageWith the Olympic torch relay continuing its tour through East Turkestan it brings suppression of basic human rights, instead of the spirit of freedom associated with the Olympics. 

Below is a press release issued by The Uyghur American Association:

As the Olympic torch passes through East Turkestan (also known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region), leaving the regional capital of Urumchi today [17 June 2008] and arriving tomorrow in the southern city of Kashgar, the Uyghur American Association laments the discrepancy between the peace and freedom the torch is meant to symbolize and the harsh repression carried out on the Uyghur people. Amid heavy security, including police checks of vehicles, ubiquitous snipers and warnings to residents to stay inside their buildings with their windows shuttered, Uyghurs in Urumchi have faced an atmosphere of fear. 

"The Olympic Games and the Olympic torch should improve human rights and bring peace to China, but instead, the torch relay in East Turkistan is a demonstration of China’s dictatorship,” said Uyghur American Association president Rebiya Kadeer. “Uyghurs are simply waiting for the end of the torch relay and the Olympics, so that they can return to their normal lives.” 

The Uyghur American Association (UAA) has learned that thousands of Uyghurs were detained in the months leading up to the torch’s arrival in East Turkistan. In addition, Uyghurs in East Turkistan have been told to avoid contact with foreigners, especially foreign journalists, and Uyghur imams have been ordered to undergo “political education” regarding the Olympics. 

UAA has also learned that government authorities in East Turkestan vetted the small number of Uyghur participants and spectators involved in the torch relay, warning that the government would reprimand any Uyghurs who discussed topics perceived as sensitive with members of the press. These Uyghurs were told that, if they disobeyed the warnings, they could be charged with the crime of “revealing state secrets”. 

According to media reports, foreign journalists were told they could only select one location from which to view the torch relay in Urumchi. Around 3,000 people, overwhelmingly Han Chinese in ethnicity, converged on Urumchi’s People’s Square to cheer on the torch relay, as a large banner proclaimed unity among all ethnicities in East Turkistan.

Unlike in other cities in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through which the torch has passed, residents of Urumchi were told by top sports official Li Guangming to stay at home today, “because of safety issues”, and watch the event at home on television. 

Tomorrow [18 June 2008], the torch is set to arrive in Kashgar, a traditionally Uyghur city in southern East Turkistan. Media reports state that militia were deployed overnight along the torch route in Kashgar, and soldiers and firefighters were patrolling the city’s main square. On Thursday [19 June 2008], the torch is set to arrive in the cities of Shihezi and Changji, both centers of activity for the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps, a semi-military governmental organization existing only in East Turkistan. 

Beijing Olympic organizers recently moved the East Turkistan portion of the domestic torch relay forward one week- the torch was originally scheduled to arrive in East Turkistan on June 25 [2008]. A variety of factors may have contributed to the change, including a period of official mourning for victims of the recent earthquake in Sichuan that temporarily delayed the relay, but observers believe that Chinese officials also wanted to preclude any public signs of protest in Tibet, where the torch was originally scheduled to arrive at this time. While the relay has skirted Tibet for now, the torch relay in East Turkestan seems designed to reinforce the dictatorial control of the central government over the region. 

On the international stage, government authorities clearly hope to project an image of harmony and unity along with the torch relay, and prevent any public displays of dissent among local Uyghurs. But recent peaceful protests against systematic violations of human rights, such as a demonstration of hundreds of Uyghur women in the city of Hotan in late March [2008], have belied government propaganda. Chinese officials know that publicity of any protests surrounding the torch relay would further disprove the government’s line that all Uyghurs are contented with official policies.

“Uyghurs in East Turkistan fear that they may be arrested at any time, for any perceived expression of discontent, as they face abnormally harsh security restrictions” said Ms. Kadeer. “The authorities are using the torch relay in East Turkistan to promote a propaganda message of content and ethnic harmony, while at the same time filling prisons with innocent Uyghurs, and committing atrocities against the Uyghurs on an unprecedented scale.” 

The PRC has long sought to equate all Uyghur opposition to Chinese government policies with “terrorism.” Over the past seven years, using “terrorism” as a justification, Beijing has undertaken a renewed, systematic, and sustained crackdown on all forms of Uyghur dissent. As is common in the PRC justice system, those arrested in these campaigns frequently suffer from physical abuse and other maltreatment while in government custody. In addition, they are often subject to nontransparent trials and denied access to independent counsel. Convictions are regularly obtained on the basis of forced confessions extracted through torture.

Recently, the PRC government has put forward several specific terrorism claims, without sufficient evidence provided to support their accusations. For instance, in early April [2008], PRC announced at a press conference that a plot by “East Turkestan terrorists" had been thwarted by the authorities. Interrogations of the 35 suspects in custody were said to have revealed the plot’s aim of disrupting the Beijing Olympics through suicide attacks and the kidnapping of athletes. 

With regard to the alleged Olympics terror plot, Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based expert on Uyghur issues with Human Rights Watch, cautioned “The experience around the world since the launch of the global war on terrorism has taught the international community how easily threats of terrorism can be manipulated by authoritarian governments for their own purposes.” 

Much like Tibetans, Uyghurs in East Turkestan have struggled for cultural survival in the face of a government-supported influx of Chinese migrants, as well as harsh repression of political dissent and any expression of their distinct identity, however lawful or peaceful. A U.S. State Department report released in March 2008 draws attention to human rights abuses by PRC authorities in East Turkestan, including the use of the legal system as a tool of repression against Uyghurs who voice discontent with the government; the fierce suppression of Uyghur religion, a moderate form of Sunni Islam that is a vital part of their ethnic identity; the transfer of young Uyghur women from majority Uyghur areas of East Turkestan to work in factories in urban areas of eastern China; and the elimination of Uyghur language in schools under the current “bilingual education” policy.