Published:  08:30 PM, 20 November 2023

A Call for independence: The 9th East Turkistan General Assembly and the Uyghur’s fight against Genocide

A Call for independence: The 9th East Turkistan General Assembly and the Uyghur’s fight against Genocide
The 9th East Turkistan General Assembly, held from November 10-12, 2023, in Washington, D.C., marked a significant historical moment, coinciding with the 90th anniversary of the First East Turkistan Republic and the 79th anniversary of the Second East Turkistan Republic. These milestones serve as powerful reminders of the East Turkistani people’s unwavering pursuit of sovereignty and national independence. The assembly commenced on November 10th, following a strategic planning session on November 9th, aimed at bolstering the East Turkistan Government in Exile and advancing East Turkistan’s path towards independence.

Founded in 2004, the East Turkistan Government in Exile (ETGE) is a parliamentary body based in Washington, DC, representing the occupied region of East Turkistan. It champions the political and human rights of Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, and other Turkic people and strives to restore East Turkistan’s independence.

The East Turkistan Parliament in Exile convened this year, bringing together 60 newly elected members from 13 diaspora communities worldwide. Opening remarks were delivered by outgoing Prime Minister Salih Hudayar and outgoing President Ghulam Yaghma. Over a dozen international observers and guest speakers, including parliamentarians, government officials, strategists, researchers, and human rights activists, also participated. The timing of the session is particularly significant, coming as it does on the eve of the meeting between US President Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping at the APEC Summit. One of the objectives of the session was to draw the world’s attention to China’s systematic genocide against the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples and garner international support for East Turkistan’s pursuit of independence.

Coinciding with the APEC Summit, the assembly underscores the urgent need for President Biden to address the Uyghur Genocide in East Turkistan during his meeting with Xi Jinping. The Uyghurs’ fight for their independence is posed as a permanent solution to end the Chinese occupation and colonization of East Turkistan — the root of the ongoing genocide against Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples. The election of new leadership within the ETGE during the assembly signifies a commitment to democratic ideals and the pursuit of freedom and human dignity for the people of East Turkistan.

With a rich history spanning over 6,000 years, the Uyghurs, are the indigenous people of East Turkistan. Over the centuries, they have established and governed numerous independent kingdoms and empires. In 1759, the Manchu Qing Dynasty invaded East Turkistan, establishing indirect control through military outposts, turning the region into a quasi-colony. Inspired by the British in India, East Turkistan residents mounted 42 rebellions against Qing rule between 1759 to 1863.

In 1863, Yaqub Beg liberated East Turkistan and formed the State of East Turkistan/Kashgaria. He even engaged in negotiations and signed a treaty with the British. However, as part of the Great Game, the British financed the Qing Dynasty’s reconquest of East Turkistan in 1876 to prevent Russian expansion. In 1884, the Qing Dynasty formally incorporated East Turkistan into its empire, renaming it “Xinjiang” (New Territory). This led to the relentless colonization and brutal oppression of the Uyghur and other Turkic communities, a grave injustice that persists to the present day.

Following the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, parts of East Turkistan were ruled quasi-independently by Chinese warlords, Uyghur beys, and other Turkic groups. By the 1920s, intense Chinese persecution sparked nationalist sentiments among East Turkistan’s inhabitants, culminating in a major rebellion in 1931.

In 1933, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples declared independence as the East Turkistan Republic. They sought British support but were overthrown in 1934 following Soviet intervention and Chinese Nationalist invasion. In 1944, Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples declared independence again as the East Turkistan Republic. Initially supported by the Soviets, the republic was later used as a bargaining chip to secure China’s recognition of Outer Mongolia’s independence. In 1949, the CCP invaded East Turkistan and officially overthrew the republic. Since 1949, China has been engaging in colonization, genocide, and occupation in East Turkistan. China’s policies have resulted in a significant demographic shift, with Han Chinese now making up close to 40% of East Turkistan’s population. Over the past decade, China has prioritized preventing East Turkistan’s independence as a top national defence goal.

Despite regional variations within Xinjiang, a vast territory in northwestern China, nearly 8 million people identify as Uyghurs, out of a total population of 16 million. Some Uyghurs aspire to an independent “Uyghuristan.” Under the Kuomintang (KMT) government, five ethnic groups were recognized in China, with the Han Chinese forming the majority. Uyghurs were initially categorized under the general term “Hui Muslims,” which included all Muslim groups in China at the time. This policy continued under the Communist Party, eventually expanding to 56 recognized nationalities. The Uyghurs, along with eight other Muslim groups, were distinguished from the broader category of “Hui,” which was primarily reserved for Chinese-speaking Muslims.

After the defeat of the Nationalists in 1949, Uyghur and regional leaders welcomed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into the region. In October 1949, the Chinese Communists peacefully liberated Xinjiang and established the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on October 1, 1955. This continued the Nationalist policy of recognizing the Uyghurs as a minority nationality under Chinese rule. Between 1953 and 1963, political instability and social unrest led to large migrations of Uyghurs and Kazaks from Xinjiang to Central Asia, resulting in a Central Asian Uyghur population of around 300,000. This migration ended with the Sino-Soviet split in 1962 and the border closure in 1963. The border reopened 25 years later in the late 1980s.

The Uyghurs are predominantly Sunni Muslims who practice Islamic traditions similar to their neighbours. However, Islam is just one of several factors that define Uyghur identity, and Islamic fundamentalism has limited appeal among them. Uyghurs differentiate themselves from other Muslim groups in Xinjiang based on their indigenous status and their attachment to the land. In response to Chinese influence, Uyghurs have turned to Islamic traditions, such as the Mashrap, to preserve their culture and assert their identity.

The Uyghurs’ educational attainment falls within the national average, but they face challenges in preserving their traditional culture. While Mandarin has become the language of upward mobility, Uyghurs strive to maintain their heritage through private education and initiatives like the Uyghur Traditional Medicine Hospital and Madrassah complex. The pervasiveness of Han-centric education, despite the use of minority languages, drives a wedge between Uyghurs and their traditions, gradually integrating them into the Han Chinese milieu.

The increased integration of Xinjiang into China has led to increased migration of Han and Hui into the region, while also opening up China to Uyghurs. Uyghur men engage in long-distance trade throughout China, travelling to various cities to purchase goods and exchange currency. Their frequent travel and foreign appearance make them less suspicious than local Han, allowing them to operate in the underground economy. Some Uyghurs use their hard currency to finance the Hajj pilgrimage, while others purchase imported or luxury goods to sell or trade for profit back in Xinjiang. Their travels throughout China contribute to a stronger sense of pan-Uyghur identity.

However, since 2017, the Chinese government has been accused of arbitrarily detaining over a million Muslims in reeducation camps. The majority of those detained belong to the Uyghur ethnic group, a primarily Turkic-speaking people concentrated in China’s north-western Xinjiang region. Beyond these detentions, Uyghurs in the region have endured extensive surveillance, forced labour, and involuntary sterilizations, along with other human rights violations.

Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of committing genocide in Xinjiang, while the UN human rights office has suggested that the abuses there may amount to crimes against humanity. China denies any wrongdoing and claims to have closed its reeducation camps in 2019. However, independent journalists and researchers have gathered compelling evidence, including satellite imagery, personal testimonies, and leaked government documents, indicating that a widespread system of mass detention continues in the region. Beyond the confines of the detention camps, the Uyghur population of Xinjiang, numbering over 11 million, continues to endure the harsh realities of a protracted crackdown imposed by Chinese authorities.

Efforts to reeducate and detain people in Xinjiang began in 2014 and were significantly expanded in 2017. Satellite imagery reveals the construction of new reeducation camps and the expansion of existing facilities during this period. In just four years, thirty-nine of the camps almost tripled in size, covering an area equivalent to 140 soccer fields. Funding for security-related facilities in Xinjiang also surged in 2017, increasing by 20 billion yuan (around $2.96 billion). This substantial investment reflects the Chinese government’s commitment to its reeducation and detention policies.

In late 2019, Xinjiang’s governor announced that individuals detained in reeducation camps had “graduated,” and some camps were indeed closed. However, this proved to be a temporary reprieve. Satellite imagery identified over 380 suspected detention facilities in the following year. These facilities included lower-security reeducation camps converted into formal detention centers or prisons, expansions of existing detention centers, and the construction of new, high-security detention centers throughout Xinjiang.

The Chinese government has shifted its approach from reeducation camps to the formal justice system, imprisoning individuals for extended periods. Human Rights Watch reported that half a million people had been prosecuted in Xinjiang since 2017, according to Chinese government figures. The Associated Press found that in one county, an estimated one in twenty-five people had been sentenced to prison on terrorism-related charges, and all of them were Uyghurs.

The vast majority of individuals detained in the reeducation camps was never formally charged with any crimes and had no legal recourse to challenge their internment. Media reports indicate that the selection criteria for detention were broad and arbitrary, encompassing acts such as traveling to or communicating with individuals from countries deemed sensitive by China, attending mosque services, exceeding the three-child limit, and even sending text messages containing Quranic verses. Human rights groups assert that many Uyghurs were targeted solely for practicing their Muslim faith, with some being labeled as extremists simply for adhering to their religious beliefs.

Information regarding the conditions in these camps remains scarce, but accounts from former detainees who have escaped China depict a harrowing portrayal of extreme hardship. In 2022, the UN human rights office released a report based on interviews with dozens of individuals, including twenty-six ex-detainees, which revealed widespread patterns of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment inflicted upon camp inmates between 2017 and 2019.

The UN report corroborated earlier findings by international journalists, researchers, and human rights organizations. Various exposés have brought to light the systematic indoctrination of detainees, who were coerced into pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party, renouncing Islam, singing praises of communism, and learning Mandarin. Some former inmates described prison-like conditions, where their every move and word were monitored by cameras and microphones. Others recounted experiences of torture and sleep deprivation during interrogations. Women have shared harrowing tales of sexual abuse, including rape. The psychological toll of detention was severe, with some released detainees contemplating suicide or witnessing others take their own lives.

The internment camps also caused widespread family disruption. Children whose parents were detained were often placed in state-run orphanages. Many Uyghur parents living abroad were faced with an agonizing choice: return home to be with their children and risk detention, or remain abroad, separated from their loved ones and unable to maintain contact.

In conclusion, the 9th East Turkistan General Assembly in Washington, D.C., signifies a historic moment resonating with a 6,000-year Uyghur legacy. Amid China’s colonization, genocide, and illegal occupation in East Turkistan, the assembly urgently calls for global support against mass detentions, forced labour, and cultural obliteration. China’s denial clashes with mounting evidence, revealing a calculated manipulation of demographics. Timed with the APEC Summit, the assembly presses President Biden to confront the Uyghur Genocide in his meeting with Xi Jinping. The election of new leadership reflects a commitment to democratic ideals, standing against China’s oppressive regime. East Turkistan’s millennia-spanning struggle demands global attention and solidarity to combat rampant human rights violations, ensuring a future free from tyranny and addressing the systematic repression faced by Uyghurs.

>> Source: Voices Against Autocracy

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