Nury Turkel: Why Western leaders have failed the Uighurs

Share
Related Topics

When I was growing up, we Uighurs were discriminated against because of our race, of course. But at least back then the Beijing government didn't try to portray us as terrorists. At least the Han Chinese weren't made to believe that we were evil. I went from East Turkistan to China proper for my university education, and nobody made me learn Chinese. We might not have been politically free, but we had some level of religious and cultural choice. And it's not like that now. These days, you have to learn about Uighur history in Chinese.

So the way events have unfolded is not surprising – but the scale of it is. The government has a history of brutal crackdowns, but nothing like this: what's happening in Urumqi is at another level. It's horrifying. And one thing has to be made clear: the people who have taken to the streets are not separatists. They are not terrorists. They were carrying a Chinese flag. It takes a lot for a Uighur to carry a Chinese flag, but they knew what the consequences of stepping outside of the legal framework could be. They are law-abiding Chinese citizens demanding justice. And yet they were labelled separatists, and ruthlessly punished. After another protest in 1997, we saw mass arrests, disappearances, torture, draconian prison sentences and executions. My fear is that the same could happen to those locked up after the demonstrations now. And no Chinese lawyer will dare to defend them.

In such dire circumstances, Uighurs living abroad are, of course, desperate to contact their friends and relatives at home. But my friends say to me that they don't dare to call or email, because they are scared that they could make their family subject to action from the government, and so they're sitting on their hands. It's terrible to be cut off like that.

In the face of such repression, such a limited reaction from the international community is incredibly disappointing. Powerful leaders around the world have assured the Uighurs that they will come to their aid when they make peaceful, legitimate demands – and now that has happened, and all the White House can manage is to call on all parties to restrain themselves. And the European leaders have remained silent.

In Iran, where their national security is at stake, Western leaders have jumped at the chance to condemn the actions of a repressive regime; but in China, the value of human rights has been trumped by considerations of national interest. We expected statesmen to speak up, and they have failed us. Meanwhile, the international media, which is sceptical of Chinese claims on every issue from Tibet to Taiwan, takes the government's claims at face value.

The truth is that whatever they claim, this crackdown doesn't bring peace and security closer: it pushes them further away. What the Uighurs want is not unreasonable. If the provincial government had done their job and brought to justice the criminals who beat up Uighur workers in a toy factory, none of this would have happened.

But there are larger issues at stake. Since I left, life in China for the Uighurs has gotten worse on all fronts. All the things we used to value, like our own language, our religious freedom, have been taken away. But those are the things we draw our identity from. If they are taken away with violence, what else is left?

Of course the Uighurs are fed up: they are living in an open prison. In theory, at least, you shouldn't have to be Han Chinese to live freely in China. The Uighurs have the same rights as everyone else.

The author is a Uighur-American lawyer and activist living in Washington

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd shrink the gap between the highest and lowest paid

Marina Warner
 

Sorry Britain, but nobody cares about your little election – try being relevant next time

Emanuel Sidea
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power