Uighurs recall independent East Turkestan

Ethnic Uighurs from around the world gathered in Washington DC this week to commemorate the anniversary of two short-lived independent republics set up by their forefathers within what is today the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China. Around 100 Uighurs attended a ceremony Nov. 12 at Capitol Hill to remember the establishment of the East Turkestan republics on Nov. 12 in 1933 and 1944. Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress, praised  those who founded the republics, and called on the Uighur people to remain strong in the face of what she called a policy of "repression" under the current Chinese government. "The Uyghur people have been suffering under the oppressive government of China since the destruction of the Uyghur republics; however, the level of repression has since been extended to our beliefs and customs," she said at the ceremony at the Rayburn House of Representatives Office Building

Kadeer accused the Chinese leadership of denying Uighurs the right to "practice their religion openly and freely," and of an ongoing campaign of discrimination. "China should understand that by suppressing our people [the government] cannot silence the Uyghur call for dignity and freedom," she said. "I firmly believe there will come a day when we will establish an independent republic again."

The first East Turkestan Republic, based in Kashgar, was put down after only months by the forces of local Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai backed by Soviet troops—Moscow apparently fearing that the Uighur independence movement could spread to Central Asian lands within the USSR. The second republic was established Nov. 12, 1944, with Ghulja as its capital, after the Kuomintang (KMT) under Chiang Kai-Shek removed Sheng from power and subsequently lost control of the area to local Uighurs—this time supported by Moscow. After the KMT administration in Xinjiang surrendered to the People's Liberation Army in 1949, this second East Turkestan Republic was absorbed back into China.

During the Capitol Hill ceremony, the president of the Washington-based Uyghur American Association, Alim Seytoff, read a letter of congratulations from US Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) to Kadeer for her work. "I pray for the day when true freedom will come to all those living under the repressive rule of the Chinese government and I will continue to urge this administration and this State Department to be a voice for those whose voices have been silenced," the letter stated.

Following the ceremony at Capitol Hill, a group of Uighurs held a protest in front of Washington's Chinese embassy. (RFA, Nov. 13)

Uighurs in China have been under growing pressure since last month's Tiananmen Square suicide attack. Chinese authorities say the three attackers came from the Xinjiang city of Hotan—which has since been under heavy occupation by paramilitary police. Hotan has apparently not been sealed off to journalists. One local doctor who would not give his name told a reporter from Japan Times: "Uighurs are angry that women are not allowed to cover their faces or that they must bribe government officials to get things done. They don't go overseas [for terrorism training]. The problem is they are unhappy with officials in Hotan. The governance is bad and that’s why these idiots do what they do — make trouble, turn to violence." (Via World Uyghur Congress, Nov. 12)

A Reuters report from Turpan, Xinjiang, also noted grievances related to the face veil. Local lawyers are apparently being made to sign a pledge denouncing extremism and participation in "illegal religious activities." According to the text online at the Xinjiang judicial affairs department website: "Lawyers must commit to guaranteeing that family members and relatives do not wear burqas, veils or participate in illegal religious activities, and that young men do not grow long beards." (Via World Uyghur Congress, Nov. 13)