Nury Turkel: Why Western leaders have failed the Uighurs

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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

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