Uyghurs want India to call out “repressive” China

Uyghurs want India to call out “repressive” China

Dolkun Isa, president of World Uyghur Congress, tells DH that India must be wary about strengthening its ties with China

WUC president Dolkun Isa, who left Xinxiang for Turkey in 1994 to escape detention and is now a German citizen, still remains one of the “most wanted terrorists” for the Chinese government. wikimedia commons

China has indiscriminately imprisoned over one million Uyghur Muslims in so-called “re-education camps” in its Xinjiang Autonomous Region, as part of what it calls its “fight against terrorism and religious extremism”.

The World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which is based at Munich in Germany, however, says that the “re-education camps” have nothing to do with fighting terrorism and it is just yet another tool for the Chinese Government to persecute the Uyghurs and crush dissent against its repressive rule of the Communist Party of China.

The WUC's president, Dolkun Isa, who left Xinjiang for Turkey in 1994 to escape detention, still remains one of the most wanted “terrorists” for the Chinese Government. In 2018, Isa, now a citizen of Germany, got the Interpol to withdraw its Red Corner Notice, which was issued against him at the behest of China more than 20 years ago.

In an interview with Anirban Bhaumik of Deccan Herald; he says that China has been going soft on Pakistan on the issue of terrorism only to make it sure that its Belt and Road Initiative goes on unhindered. He also says India must be wary about strengthening its ties with China. 

Can you please tell us about the history of the Uyghur people and their struggle against the Chinese Government? 

The Uyghur people have been living in East Turkistan for over 4000 years, but in the last few centuries, in particular, have faced regular invasions and occupation from Chinese forces, starting with the Manchu invasion and annexation of East Turkistan in 1759. On two occasions in recent history, an independent East Turkistan Republic has existed – in 1933 and 1944. These independent republics were overthrown by military intervention and political meddling from the Soviet Union. In October of 1949, China's People’s Liberation Army troops marched into East Turkistan, effectively ending the East Turkistan Republic. The Chinese communists set up Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the territory of East Turkistan. This marked the start of the current era of repression that the Uyghur people have been subjected to. Much like the situation in Tibet, the Communist Party of China sees the existence of the Uyghur people who have a unique language, history, ethnicity, culture and historically defined territory as a threat and have sought to consolidate control over East Turkistan through a series brutal campaigns to quash any form of dissent, by denying Uyghur people their basic human rights and by attempting to totally culturally assimilate the Uyghur people through propaganda, denying Uyghurs their language, culture and religion and by sending large numbers of Han Chinese to the region to change the demographics. The current situation is the worst and is the culmination of decades of repressive policies and assimilation campaigns.

China justified its move to keep thousands of Uyghur Muslims detained in “vocational training institutions” in Xinjiang, claiming that its stringent measures had prevented terror attacks. What is your view? 

The Chinese Government’s claim that the internment camps are ‘vocational training centres’ aimed at fighting ‘terrorism’ is completely without merit and is merely an attempt to avoid international criticism. Even the Chinese Government’s own rhetoric proves this. Before August 2018, the Chinese Government routinely denied the very existence of the camps. After the camps were highlighted in the report of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination on China, it finally acknowledged that the camps existed, but said they were ‘vocation training centres’ that provided professional training on a voluntary basis. When this was proved to be untrue and the camps gained considerable attention in the international media and amongst national governments, the Chinese Government’s narrative changed again to say the camps were part of its counter-terrorism measure. 

China has routinely used the concept of terrorism to justify its persecution of Uyghurs and quash any form of peaceful dissent by the Uyghurs. Before the attacks on September 11, 2001, in New York and elsewhere in the US, the Chinese Government never referred to terrorism while speaking about the Uyghur people. It only justified its repressive actions as a means of fighting ‘separatism’. However, after the 9/11 terror attacks in New York, the Chinese Government has routinely used the war on terrorism as a justification for cracking down on the Uyghur people. The Uyghurs do not have a history of terrorism and extremism. Although a very small number of incidents have occurred, these have been massively exaggerated and overstated by the Chinese Government and used to repress the Uyghur people as a whole.

The camps are actually aimed at eroding the Uyghur ethnicity, socially re-engineering the Uyghur people and fostering loyalty to the Communist Party of China. It has nothing to do with counter-terrorism efforts. This is proved by the type of people who have disappeared into the camps. The Uyghurs from all walks of life have been detained. Scholars, academics, athletes, musicians, comedians, atheists and religious people – all have been detained in the camps. Those who are sent to the camps were selected for various reasons. The Uyghur political activists, those with families or friends outside China, those who have travelled internationally and any independent or respected Uyghurs in leadership positions have been targeted in particular. Millions of innocent people are currently detained in the camps, with no legal rights and are being held outside Chinese criminal law. They in no way can be considered a counter-terrorism measure.

If China is so serious about fighting terrorism that it puts thousands of Uyghurs under surveillance and “re-education camps”, why does it repeatedly block attempts at the United Nations to impose sanctions on the terrorists like Masood Azhar and Zaki ur Rehman Laqvi who are based in its “all-weather friend” Pakistan? 

China’s repressive policies towards the Uyghurs have nothing to do with terrorism or extremism, they are only convenient excuses for the Chinese government. China’s main concern with Pakistan is its role in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). BRI is the key to China's future geopolitical and economic ambitions. It is an important part of China’s territorial expanding project. The Belt and Road Initiative shows that China has global ambitions and wishes to upset the current international and reform it in its image. We are now seeing a truly dystopian police state developing in China, which will serve as a model of oppression to authoritarian leaders and nations all over the world. China’s influence in the world is growing steadily.

What is your view of India-China relations which thawed in 2018 after the military face-off at Doklam in western Bhutan in 2017? 

China’s relations with other countries are not based on common values or solidarity, but only on the economy and China’s national interests. While China is keen to assert that its relations with other states are ‘win-win’ and mutually beneficial, this is clearly not the case, as can be seen whenever a state’s interests diverge from that of China. Additionally, while China routinely uses the concept of sovereignty to claim other states should not criticize its human rights record, it regularly interferes in the domestic situations of other states. 

For example, Turkey, which has been improving relations with China, criticized China’s treatment of Uyghurs. The Chinese Government threatened economic retaliation and closed its consulate in Turkey in response. Across the world, China is using predatory loan practices to foster dependence of independent states on China. Sri Lanka was forced to hand over one of its ports to China after it could not repay Chinese loans. Pakistan is also massively indebted to China through its infrastructure loans and investments, which now plays a major role in relations between the two countries. India must observe how China conducts itself when it comes to its relations with other states. India must be very wary about strengthening ties with China. India must instead find its voice to speak up for human rights and demand that China ceases its crime against humanity that the Uyghurs are being subject to. As I said, Belt and Road Initiative is an important part of China’s territory expansion project. China has a territorial problem with all neighbouring countries. 

Why does Pakistan, which is so vocal about human rights violation in Kashmir by Indian Army and paramilitary forces, keep mum on the repression of Uyghurs by security forces in China? We have recently seen Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammad bin Salman keeping mum on the issue of persecution of the Uyghurs in China. He rather defended China’s right to fight terrorism in a tacit endorsement to repression in Xinjiang. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation has also not been very vocal about it. Why? Why is the international community not raising its voice against China, particularly on the issue of persecution of the Uyghurs?

The silence from most of the Muslim world on this issue has been very disappointing. So far, the only Muslim-majority states to publicly raise this issue have been Malaysia and Turkey. Leaders of most of the Muslim-majority states have put Chinese money and investments over the lives and well-being of millions of innocent people. While the situation in East Turkistan is primarily about the Uyghur ethnic identity, religion forms a large component of that identity and has certainly been targeted by the Chinese government. It is virtually impossible for Uyghurs to practice Islam in East Turkistan now. Long beards, Islamic veils, Qurans and prayer mats have all been banned, yet most Muslim leaders have remained silent. e certainly exists a double-standard when it comes to how these states deal with China. Most Muslim-majority states, including Pakistan, have been very vocal in the UN and elsewhere about Myanmar’s horrific treatment of the Rohingya people. In the UN human rights review of the UK, Netherlands and Finland last year, most of these states rightfully drew attention to instances of Islamophobia or discrimination against Muslims. However, during the UN’s review of China’s human rights record, virtually no Muslim-majority states raised religious persecution or discrimination against Uyghur Muslims. It is shocking that one of the worst human rights crises in the world and one of the most serious instances of state persecution of Muslims could be ignored by the majority of Muslim-majority states.

The World Uyghur Congress thinks all states should speak out about what is happening to the Uyghurs in China. Considering the seriousness of the situation and the scale and gravity of the human rights violations occurring in East Turkistan, all states have a moral responsibility to speak out, India included. If these states do not find their voice, Uyghurs will continue to suffer and a unique ethnicity, culture and language may be eroded entirely. We have reached out to India in the UN and in other forums on a number of occasions, but India is still silence on the current situation of Uyghur. We hope that this will change in the near future.

The Government of India last year asked its political leaders and senior officials to stay away from events attended by Dalai Lama in order to avoid hurting sensitivities of China at a time when New Delhi was trying to mend its ties with Beijing. Do you think it would be appropriate for India to dilute its support to Dalai Lama and the Tibetans’ struggle against Chinese rule in Tibet, particularly at a time when questions are being raised about the fate of the Tibetans’ struggle beyond the lifetime of His Holiness?

It is certainly not appropriate and is further evidence of China interfering in the affairs of another state to silence criticism of its human rights record. Human rights and freedom of expression in India should not be impeded due to Chinese interference and the Indian Government should stand with and continue to support Dalai Lama. Tibetans and Uyghurs are in a critical situation due to the repressive actions of the Chinese Government. If leaders do not stand up to Chinese influence and intimidation and support human rights and civil society, the future will look bleak.

How do you see the future of the struggle of the Uyghurs and the Tibetans and the future of China?

It is a critical period and Uyghurs and Tibetans are suffering greatly. What happens to the Uyghur and Tibetan people will have major implicaitons, not just for the fate of the Uyghur and Tibetan peoples, but for all of China and the world. We are at a crucial point in human history where the very concept of human rights and a rule-based international order is being challenged. The situation in East Turkistan is a major test of the international community’s commitment to human rights and common humanity that may decide the course our future will take. We have hope that the world is finally waking up to what is a stake, for the continued existence of the Uyghurs as a distinct people and for international order. There is a growing momentum among world leaders and civil society to speak up for the Uyghur people and to defend human rights. We must have hope that our friends and family will be released from the camps and that we will one day be able to fully enjoy our basic rights and freedoms. These next few years will be critical.