As it happened to Palestine and Kashmir, the world has ignored the plight of persecuted Uighur Muslims in China’s Xingjian region where the people started their struggle to win back their political, economic, religious and cultural rights ever since Red Army occupied the area in 1949.
China’s vast and strategically important Western Xingjian region, once called Eastern Turkistan, has been the homes for predominantly Uighur Muslims who once ruled the Silk Road cities and are ethnically Turkic speak a language akin to Turkish. They have lived in the region for more than four millennia and played an important role in the cultural and mercantile exchanges between the East and West.
Located beyond the natural boundary of China on the ancient caravan route Uighur has been an integral part of the history of Central Asia. Xingjian Uighur Autonomous Region is the name given to Eastern Turkistan by the Chinese government and this has been the cause of much resentment – a legacy of their former Manchu rulers, who invaded Eastern Turkistan in 1759 and incorporated it into China.
Xingjian, containing a large portion of the nation’s mineral resources, including 38 percent of the coal reserves and 25 percent of the petroleum and natural gas reserves, is China’s largest province, accounting for sixteen percent of the landmass.
Though home to only 1.6 percent of the population, Xingjian has tremendous strategic significance for China, which conducts nuclear tests at the Lop Nor range. (As a policy, both former Soviet Union and China always used Muslim populated areas for their nuclear tests despite the fallout, resulting in the wide-scale contamination of water sources and land, in turn, causing a disproportionately large number of cancer cases, congenital birth defects, and various other related diseases among the Uighur population).
Despite the mineral wealth of Xingjian, more than ninety percent of local Muslims live below the poverty line. Late Chairman Mao Tse-tung designed an aggressive population transfer policy that has seen the rapid growth of the Han community in Xingjian – from an original six percent in 1949 to forty percent in 1978 – and has effectively made the Uighurs second-class citizens in their own country.
Today ratio between the Uighur and Han populations has gone from being 9:1 to 1:9. China gives preference in employment and the best jobs to ethnic Han Chinese migrants who were mostly benefited by the money China pours into the province for investment.
Inevitably, animosity is rife between the two communities.
This growing rift between the government and the Uighur Muslims took on new impetus with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Central Asian Republics across the border. Encouraged by this trend in Central Asia, Uighur Muslims too started their freedom struggle demanding their political and religious rights for which they have vowed to fight to the finish in a do-or-die struggle.
In response the Chinese authorities subjected Uighur Muslims to unbelievable oppression and torture besides executing a number of people linked to Muslim resistance. Even occasional bombings or shootings have been met with terrible fury. There were frequent reports of arrest, trial and execution of Uighur Muslims.
China signed agreements with several Central Asian countries to gain their cooperation to crush the separatist struggle in Xingjian.
All recent human rights reports point to a drastic escalation of persecution and repression against the Uighur minority.
Exploiting the US-led global war against terrorism, since 9/11 tragedy in New York, Beijing arrests Uighur Muslims in large numbers, concludes trials within days, often resulting in the death sentence, which is often meted out on the same day that it is handed down. The Uighurs are now “afraid to talk, not just to foreigners, but even to each other”.
Islam, inextricably linked to their culture and identity, came to the region in 934 AD and Kashgar became one of the major centres of Islam. According to statistics, there are over 23,700 mosques in the region. But in Beijing’s resolve to destroy this very identity, the Chinese government has placed strict restrictions on the practice of Islam.
This repressive policy, which began during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, continues to date. A Human Rights Watch report tells of how the Uighurs were forced to breed pigs and mosques were shut down and occasionally used as pork ware houses.
The Islamic clergy has been subjected to heavy scrutiny and “political education”. According to official sources, around 8,000 Imams were “trained” to give them “a clearer understanding of the communist party’s ethnic and religious policies”. Some Muslim clerics have been detained for teaching the Quran.
Under this campaign, religious schools are banned, many mosques closed and the building of new mosques restricted. Imams, indoctrinated in communism, deliver Friday sermons. Private religious services cannot be held without the permission of the Communist Party. The police raid peaceful religious gatherings and those found to be leading the gatherings have been sentenced to long-term imprisonment. Government employees risk being fired if they go to mosques.
Reiterating this in its report, the London-based human rights watchdog, Amnesty International (AI) said “fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan was banned.
These draconian measures to stamp out any manifestations of religious sentiment include night time patrols of student dormitories to ensure that there were no prayers taking place, outlawing of Quran study meetings and religious schools, the identification and surveillance of religious leaders and the banning of history books that do not conform to the “accepted” version of history.
Preaching or teaching Islam outside government control is considered subversive and several hundred Uighurs accused of such activities have been executed while thousands more have been detained, imprisoned and tortured.
Chinese authorities have stepped up their control of Muslim religious and folk customs. Accordingly stepped up surveillance on weddings and funerals as well as circumcision ceremonies, house-moving rituals and the wearing of earrings. Uighur government and party officials have been told to seek permission before attending any such festivals or ceremonies and report back to the government upon the completion of their activities.
Explaining their plight, a prominent Uighur leader said, “The Chinese have likened the Uighurs to pandas – a species on the edge of extinction”.
Amnesty has recorded hundreds of executions and extra-judicial killings of Uighurs. China applies incredible torture methods to stop them from fighting for their freedom, and commonly use painful and brutal torture methods never used before.
The former United Nations Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, once warned during a visit to Beijing that they should not use the war on terror as an excuse for widespread repression in Xingjian.
The Amnesty Report also spoke about recent amendments to the Criminal Law which was interpreted to suit the government.
But this is a conflict China is anxious to hide from its people and from foreign governments, overseas investors and tourists. Beijing has effectively pre-empted often weak Muslim countries, which rely on China for political, economic and military assistance, from speaking out against its repression of their fellow Muslims in Xingjian. Diplomats are kept under close watch and foreign journalists are allowed to visit only in the company of escorts.
Under the circumstances, China’s notoriously repressive birth control policies, including, but not limited, to forced abortions, would seem to suggest that Xingjian is one of the worst places in the world to be a Muslim right now. This is especially so in the context of the ongoing global war on Islam and the fast growing relations between China and Israel.
With US led Britain, Europe, Russia and Israel virtually destroying Muslim countries Uighur is likely to join the list of forgotten Muslim freedom struggles like Palestine and Kashmir. (by Latheef Farook)
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