The Uighurs

Arab News Editorial 24 March 2002

What is surprising and shocking about Friday’s report from the human rights group Amnesty International saying that thousands of Muslim Uighurs in China’s province of Xinjiang have been imprisoned without trial during the past six months is not the allegation; there has been a steady, unpleasant stream of stories of Chinese oppression in Xinjiang in recent years. Rather, it is that no one, either in the Muslim world or in the wider international community, seems particularly vexed by it. This disinterest in the fate of the Uighurs contrasts starkly with the passions rightly raised on behalf of the Palestinians.

Yet the suffering of the two are very similar. Both are oppressed by a remorseless state machine. Like the Israelis, the Chinese want to create facts on the ground. They too have pursued a rigorous settlement policy in the hope of altering the local demography. And, unlike the Israelis, they are succeeding. As thousands of Chinese settlers are implanted each week, the Uighurs are now a minority in their own oil-rich land.

It is even arguable that, if anything, the oppression suffered by the Uighurs is even greater than that visited on the Palestinians. As the Amnesty report notes (and there is solid evidence to support it), most of the thousands arrested have done nothing more subversive than practice their faith and live their culture. Imams have been arrested for teaching the Qur’an and fasting during Ramadan. Not even the Israelis have gone that far — although if they were not under the international spotlight, they might very well try.

But that is the whole point.

If the plight of the Uighurs is more tragic than that of the Palestinians, it is largely because it is a plight ignored. There are no international agencies working on the ground to alleviate Uighur suffering, no political pressure on Beijing to halt its oppression. This cannot be allowed to continue. There may well be one or two terrorists among the Uighur population; certainly there has been a bombing campaign against Chinese rule in the province, although it has been singularly ineffective; there is also evidence of some Uighur militants having been members of Al-Qaeda.

But that does not give China the right to use the international campaign against terrorism to suppress legitimate dissent and, worse, to terrorize a people into surrendering their identity and faith. China’s campaign is outrageous and illegal — and it must not be allowed to get away with it. It is the refusal to see this and do something about it that shocks.

Around the world, Muslims are in bitter and furious mood at Israel’s actions; they are indignant at America’s persistent past refusal to rein in its ally. But when it comes to East Turkestan (as Xinjiang is historically known), there is nothing more than a shrug of the shoulders. It is as if people think that China is beyond pressure so there is not much point doing anything about it.

That is not right. The world is focused on the Palestine issue for the moment, but the sufferings of the Uighurs must not be ignored. China must be told firmly that it has to end its oppression; if not, its hopes of prosperity and international trade will be short-lived.

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