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Uyghur Protests Widen as Xinjiang Unrest Flares Printer friendly page Print This
By Amy Goodman
Democracy Now!
Wednesday, Jul 8, 2009

Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! interviews Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American Attorney. He is the co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and Past President of the Uyghur American Association.Video of the interview avaiable for viewing on site.

AMY GOODMAN: New protests have erupted in China’s western Xinjiang region, two days after at least 156 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the country’s worst ethnic violence in decades. On Tuesday, some 200 ethnic Uyghurs, who are a Muslim minority, took to the streets to protest over the mass arrest of more than 1,400 people following Sunday’s clashes. The protesters–mostly women and children–were surrounded by riot police armed with rifles and tear gas.

Later, hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi–the capital of Xinjiang province–armed with clubs and machetes, smashing shops and stalls belonging to Uyghurs. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowds. The two sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. Officials say 156 people–mostly ethnic Han Chinese–died in Sunday’s violence. Uyghurs groups say many more have died, claiming 90 percent of the dead are Uyghurs. The Uyghur demonstrators say they had been demanding justice for two Uyghurs killed last month in a fight with Han Chinese at a toy factory in southeastern China.

Chinese authorities have tried to crack down on dissent since Sunday’s protests, carrying out mass arrests, restricting media access and cutting off cell phone and internet services. For more we are joined by Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American Attorney. He is the co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and past president of the Uyghur American Association. He joins us from Washington DC. Welcome to Democracy Now!

NURY TURKEL: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain the background of what took place this weekend?

NURY TURKEL: A couple of things were the reasons of Sundays, of what started as a peaceful demonstration. The first thing is the Uyghurs, I believe, fed up with the communist Chinese regime, which just and brutally oppressing Uyghurs political, economic and social freedom for the last six decades. And second reason is the mob killing and beating in the toy factory in southern province of Guangdong where hundreds of Uyghurs were injured and many others killed. And the Uyghurs from Urumqi, the provincial capital, use internet and modern use of telecommunications to reach out to the government, local government to demand for justice, demand justice for the injured and killed Uyghurs in Guangdon Province. And the local authorities, regional chairman, regional Communist Party Chief, ignored the legitimate demand the Uyghurs asked. So, those are two reasons triggered, sparked Sunday’s demonstration.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly who the Uyghurs are Nury Turkel.

NURY TURKEL: The Uyghurs are the other Tibetans that you never have heard of. The Uyghurs are ethnically a Turkic people. They speak a language that is similar to the one spoken in the Uzbekistan and all the way to Black Sea region of Turkey or Central Turkey. The Uyghurs historically have been a very politically active people in the region. They have had their own Uyghur empire throughout history. In the modern memory they had two short-lived Republics, known as East Turkistan Republic. The first one was established in 1933, the second one was established in 1944. The second one was destroyed mainly by Stalin’s aim to collaborate with the Chinese, firing the most prominent Uyghur leaders. They were killed on their way to negotiate the final status with the Chinese. Five of the most prominent leaders of the Uyghur Republic killed in a mysterious air crash in 1949 in Kazakhstan airspace, on their way to negotiate the final status of East Turkistan with the Chinese. Ever since, the Uyghurs fall into the Chinese communist regime. Today, the Uyghurs feel that they live in an open prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Nury, this last weekend, why did this all start? Explain exactly how it was sparked.

NURY TURKEL: The Uyghurs, specially, particularly after 9/11, the Uyghurs have been pressured in all fronts. The Uyghurs literally lost any thing that they had, even their native language and their own cultural heritage that they had been proudly been adhering to. The economic pressure, social pressure, political pressure, made the Uyghurs feel they had been suffocated by the communist regime. Today in their society, the Uyghurs do not have the right to worship, the right to fair employment, do not have the right to enjoy their cultural heritage. The women and children under 18 years old, and even retired government workers are not allowed to participate in any religious activities. The Uyghur language has been banned in higher education system. They imposed Chinese language based education system. Despite economic boom in China, the experience the highest unemployment rate, and the Chinese government openly discourages and discriminates—discourages Uyghurs applying to high paid positions. And also, the job advertisements, if you look at them openly discouraged the Uyghurs to apply for certain types of high paid jobs in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: And the actual toy factory incident where two Uyghurs were killed, that took place nowhere near where this is taking place now?

NURY TURKEL: Several years ago, Chinese government started this program bringing the Uyghurs into inner Chinese city, that includes women, from the countryside, to locate them in countries all around Chinese coastal cities. Today, you can find Uyghur workers in factories manufactures, making Nike sneakers and in some toy factories. This particular one is very large factory located in Guangdong Province where the have roughly around 800 Uyghur workers from a southern city of Kashgar . One of the disgruntled Chinese workers post a message claiming that two Uyghur men raped a Chinese woman, which turned out to be false. Triggered a mob and local Han Chinese workers to attack the Uyghur workers at night. And the government reported only two deaths, but based on the Radio Free Asia reporting after the interview of two of the injured Uyghurs, the number is much larger than that.

As we speak today, more than 400 Uyghur workers previously worked for this toy factory had been locked up in an undisclosed location. The claim is the government is protecting their safety. If the government is protecting their safety, they should be allowed to be returned home to Kashgar. The government is obviously not allows them to do that. Also, the local Guangdong provincial government failed to exercise its obligation to investigate the criminal act. This Radio Free Asia report also indicates the security guards for the manufacturer allowed outside mobs to come in with clubs and lead tubes to beat up the Uyghur workers, including women. So, this is unacceptable to any standard. The Uyghurs in Urumqi could not accept this brutal act against the Uyghur workers who were from the countryside of the Uyghur region, who simply just want to earn some money and go back. Another displeasure the Uyghurs have expressed is, back in 1949, the Han Chinese population only three percent. But now reached over 45%, the Han Chinese are still coming. They can work, they and get all types of loans, they can get all types of government high-paid positions, where as poor Uyghurs cannot even work in peacefully go on with their lives in a manufacturing, minimum paid jobs in Guangdong Province. This created a natural resentment. Not only to the Uyghurs inside China, the worldwide Uyghur community is outraged. Several hundred Uyghurs tried to make a living in a factory where millions and millions of Chinese still keep coming and taking over and making the Uyghurs second class citizens in their own land.

AMY GOODMAN: I think the way most people know about the Uyghurs is of course Guantanamo. The Uyghur prisoners there. And as the butt of jokes. Two weeks ago, the Bermuda and the Pacific Island nation of Palau said they were going to be accepting a group of Uyghur prisoners who have been held at Guantanamo for seven years, even though US officials admitted they were wrongly detained. The Uyghurs could not be returned to China out of fear the would be imprisoned and tortured. So at the recent Radio TV Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama joked about the plight of the Uyghurs.

    BARACK OBAMA: Nick at Nite has a new take on an old classic “Leave it to Uyghurs.” I thought that was pretty good.

AMY GOODMAN: He also joked about the refusal of other countries to accept prisoners held at Guantanamo.

    BARACK OBAMA: As I travel to all these countries, I saw firsthand how much people truly have in common with one another. Because no matter where I went, there is one thing I heard over and over again from every world leader—no, thanks, but have you considered Palau?

AMY GOODMAN: Nury Turkel, these prisoners from Guantanamo, the Uyghurs. And your response to President Obama?

NURY TURKEL: President Obama has not speak up on behalf of the Uyghurs. In order to understand the Guantanamo Uyghur situation, we have to look at the overall human rights condition in the east Turkistan region. Because you would not be able to understand why these Uyghurs left China and ended up being in Taliban controlled territory in Afghanistan. Without knowing the Chinese bullying all around the world, you will not be able to understand why the Uyghurs cannot be resettled in other countries. Its all connected. Some of these Uyghurs in Guantanamo or have been to Guantanamo, participants of 1997 demonstration. Which is very similar to what we have witnessing in Urumqi today. For example, one of the five Uyghurs released into Albania was not only the participant, one the leaders of the 1997 [unintelligible] demonstration, he is not only punished by being a participant, his entire family, locked up and his brother-in-law died in prison. So the events that is taking place in Chinese controlled East-Turkistan region, has a direct relationship to the Uyghurs currently being in prison in Guantanamo.

I am very surprised and disappointed like many other Uyghurs ex-pats and Americans here that our government is not speaking up. It has been two days. And I can’t imagine my government would be sitting and watching the events falling like this. If its other things happening in China. I hate to use this example, but when the Tibetans took to the streets last March, the international community be outraged. But this demonstration turned to a riot in Urumqi much larger than what we have seen in Lhasa, and our government has been largely quiet. Yesterday, the State Department expressed concern, and Robert Gibbs company spokesperson for President Obama, asked all sides to restrain. That is a classic response, but we need more than that. The United States can do a bit better job. The Obama administration needs to deliver some of the hope to be Uyghurs as well, as they did to the Americans and the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you for being with us, Nury Turkel. He is speaking to us from Washington, D.C. This is “Democracy Now!,”, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

Democracy Now!
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