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China Letter-News and Human Rights

China human rights news with focus on the Uygur of Xinjiang, Tibetans and Tibet, Chinese mining workers, religion, corruption and censorship.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Guantanamo Uygurs

Among the 600 original captives from the United States' military intervention in Afghanistan held at Guantanamo Bay Cuba were 12 Uygurs from Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in China's northwest.

The Uygur are one of China's 56 ethnic minority groups and are by far the most culturally distinct ethnic group in China. They are a Turkic people who originated from the scores of nomadic tribes that ranged present day Mongolia and southern Siberia in the centuries before Christ. Along with other Turkic tribes of Central Asia, they were the forefathers of the modern day people of Turkey.

The Uygur once controlled a mighty empire in the 9th and 10th century C.E controlling much of Central Asia and present day Xinjiang. After their defeat at the hands of another Turkic tribe they were forced to move en mass to the outskirts of their former empire in present day Xinjiang and Gansu province. Here they lived virtually with autonomy until being subjugated by the Qing (Manchu) dynasty in the 18th century. Even from then whilst nominally under the control of the Chinese it was not until the communist takeover of Xinjiang in 1949 that Chinese influence was well and truly asserted.

Whilst initially acceding to joining with Communist China (or at least not resisting) on the promise that Xinjiang would become an autonomous governing region within the Chinese state the realisation that this "autonomy" was in name only saw the Uygur becoming increasingly less amenable to Han Chinese control in the ensuing years.

The "Great Leap Forward" of the 1950's and the "Cultural Revolution" (1966-1975) were particularly hard on the Uygur bringing about dramatic changes to their way of life and increasing persecution of their religion. The Uygur are Muslim.

The break up of the former Soviet Union and the setting up of independent states in Central Asia gave hope to some Uygur that they too could throw off the shackles of Communist rule and in the period of 1990 to 1997 there was agitation towards this end. Two incidents in particular were of importance in this time frame one a "Revolt" in Baran ( a small Xinjiang township) in 1990 and the other the so called "Yining (Gulja) Uprising" in 1997.

Neither incident could truly be called events of magnitude or ones which derived from any universal Uygur ground-swell bent on armed revolt to obtain independence. They were however to prove to be events of significant consequence for the Uygur in many ways.

One consequence was that many Uygur were forced to flee Xinjiang to avoid prison and possible execution. Those from the "Baran era" mostly were able to go to the newly formed "Turkic republics" of Central Asia where, at that time, they were welcomed. Those from the "Yining era" however were forced to flee Central Asia totally or go to Afghanistan, which had a sizeable Uygur population going back many years. The change of attitude among the central Asian states towards such political refugees came about due to increased Chinese diplomatic and economic pressure.

The Chinese have claimed since the 1997 Yining incident that there existed numerous Uygur "terrorist" organisations bent on violent separation of Xinjiang from China. These claims were intensified after "9/11' as it provided the Chinese government a degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the world in their "crackdown" on the Uygur.

The Chinese claimed, without much proof, post "9/11" that Uygur "terrorist" organisations were in league with both the Taliban and al Qaida. Among their claims was one that there existed in Afghanistan a "Chinese battalion" of upwards of 1,000 Uygur terrorists trained by the Taliban and funded by Al Qaida for terrorist activities in China.

A world still reeling from the horror that was '9/11" looked upon such Chinese claims probably with a less judicious eye than they would have done in more normal times.

It was no surprise then, at least for those who championed the cause of the Uygur, that in the wash-up to the United State's intervention in Afghanistan only 12 Uygurs were detained among the 600 or so captured and sent to Guantanamo.

I said in an article written at the time of the release of the "Guantanamo numbers" that there being only 12 Uygurs among the 600 suggested fairly strongly that Chinese claims as to the existence of numerous "Uygur terrorist" organisations with extensive memberships were hardly supported by the numbers, especially given Afghanistan's proximity to Xinjiang and the fact that there existed a sizeable Uygur population in Afghanistan from whom the Taliban could press into service ethnic Uygur men. Of course this is not to say there were not some Uygur there willingly with a view to furthering their desires for Uygur independence but by all accounts from Uygur sources their numbers were miniscule.

It has now been reported that the 12 Uygurs are about to be released as, in the words of the US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, they no longer are of "significant threat or may not be wanted on criminal charges."

This then must be final proof that Chinese claims as to Uygur links with Islamic extremism, al Qaida and terrorism were at the best tenuous or at worst just plain fabricated lies meant to mask their ongoing oppression of the Uygur people.

The question now is where are these 12 to go? Returning them to China will no doubt result in their execution regardless of their innocence or degree of "guilt". Any "guarantees" to their safety must be taken with a large grain of salt especially after Chinese officials went back on assurances given to the United States that a Tibetan executed in 2003 would have his trial reviewed by the Chinese Supreme Court before sentence was carried out. As well the Chinese carried out the execution of an alleged ringleader of the 1997 Yining incident only as recent as October 2003, some six years after most of the 124 sentenced to death over Yining were executed.

Once again it will more than likely be left to the U.S. to grant these Uygurs sanctuary as other nations will be too "frightened" of the economic ramifications of upsetting the Chinese Government by accepting these people.

Channelnewsasia.com: Guantanamo