A Tibetan’s Perception of the Uyghur (Uighur) Protests

Bhuchung K Tsering

Last weekend, while the Tibetans all over the world were preparing to celebrate the joyous occasion of the birthday of H.H. the Dalai Lama, news came out of Eastern Turkestan, called Xinjiang by China, about protests by the Uyghurs (Uighur) there and the subsequent Chinese crackdown that has resulted in the death of many people, both Chinese and Uyghurs. While China has acknowledged the death of over 150 people, Uyghur sources say many more have died, and several more detained.

Coming in the wake of what happened in Tibet last year, this development should be a wake up call to the Chinese Government on its overall policies relating to people like the Uyghurs and the Tibetans, who are considered minorities in China. The one message from the Uyghur people this time is that those policies have failed and the Chinese Government needs to understand that.

Even though the situation is still unfolding, here are some of my feelings. An immediate impetus for sharing my thoughts is an interesting report in China’s Global Times of yesterday with the headline “Solidarity among ethnic groups urged” that talked about the Uyghur demonstrations and analyzed the factors behind the unrest.

Although Tibet was not in the picture this time, Tibet was very much present, both in the way the Chinese Government is reacting to this development and the international community’s perception of the same.

Why did I find the Global Times report mentioned above interesting? I think it highlights China’s new strategy of trying to project to the international community an image of maturity and enlightened leadership in dealing with issues like this. By resorting to strategically placed quotes to show objectivity, the Global Times projects the impression of trying to understand the feelings of the Uyghur people. At the same time the Chinese Government does not have to change any of its policies, which are the root cause of the unrest among the Uyghur people, just as they have been in the case of the Tibetans. In the process there is an attempt to spin the story to suit current political needs of China and provide superficial solutions.

A case in point is projecting economic factor as the cause, as was done by Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic theory and policy at the Minzu University of China, in the Global Times report. “If the basic living requirements of the people are not met, such incidents will happen now and then,” Xiong said.”

A similar reasoning was also given to what happened in Tibet. Highlighting economic reasons, which are logical and plausible, provides the authorities the opportunity to divert the attention from the root cause, i.e. misplaced policies on people like the Tibetans and the Uyghurs and denying them basic rights.

To take another case, rather than trying to understand the root cause of discrimination and denial of rights of the Uyghur people, the authorities and Chinese opinion makers have sought recourse to blaming Rebiya Kadeer and the World Uyghur Congress for the unrest. To this, they have added the three forces of separatism, radicalism and extremism as being responsible for the unrests. This is very typical of the mindset that is responsible for the increased grievances among the people.

Another attempt at diverting attention from the real issue is by calling this “an isolated incident.”  Global Times says, “However, Xiong said, the case is just “an isolated incident,” adding that the whole society should not overestimate the incident and demonize minorities.

The fact that President Hu Jintao had to curtail his participation in the G8 summit in Italy to return to China indicates that the Chinese Government realizes that this is not just an “isolated incident.”  The Chinese Government now needs to follow this up with proactive positive actions rather than seeking the easy way out through repression and crackdown.  I am afraid they are going their old ways as reports come of bringing in more than 20,000 troops into the region to deal with the situation. While Xiong’s call to the Chinese society not to “demonize minorities” is something that is encouraging, it should actually be addressed to the Chinese leaders. In Tibet it was the authorities that intentionally launched a campaign to demonize the Tibetans after the protests in 2008 that has left a wound in the hearts of the Tibetans (and Chinese) that is yet to be healed. The authorities should take that lesson from Tibet while dealing with the Uyghur people. Unless they start doing that there may be a totally different understanding of the term “solidarity among different ethnic groups” that Xiong refers to in this quote in the Global Times. “The riot would have limited effect on the solidarity between different ethnic groups in the long term, and the common sense of the people in the region is that only with firm solidarity among different ethnic groups can society develop smoothly,” Xiong said.”

It is good that the Muslim world is waking up to the issue of the Uyghur people.  The Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) has “deplored the climate of fear that the Uygur people are obliged to live in.” OIC Secretary General Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said in a statement on July 8 that “the chronic problem facing the Uygur people in the Autonomous Region in China could not be solved through security measure alone.”  “They are a distinct people looking to assert their cultural and ethnic characteristic and Muslim identity and to enjoy their inalienable cultural and econ omic rights.  This kind of problem can only be solved through dialogue,” he added.  The OIC has “expressed its readiness to contact eh Chinese Government to help ease the tense situation.”

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has also expressed his concern at the situation and asked the Chinese Government to show restraint.

If China wants to show maturity and sincerely create a harmonious society then it is time the Chinese Government took the positive step of addressing the basic grievances of the Uyghur people. Unless this is done, it does not augur well for China as a whole.  Last year they tried to deal with the Tibetans by instigating nationalistic fervor among the majority Chinese community.  China will not dare to do it this time for many reasons, but what viable alternative solutions does the Chinese Government have? The image of the lone Uyghur woman with a crutch challenging armoured personnel carriers and paramilitary forces yesterday not only reminds me of the lone man of Tiananmen fame, but is enough to show the courage of the people that the Chinese Government has to deal with.


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