Tragically late, ‘Uyghur’ is a word the world is finally learning to say. Spell it ‘Uighar’ if you like, but people are increasingly discovering the meaning of what it spells for the millions in China’s Xinjiang province who are called that. Their Muslim faith faces a level of erasure before which just prejudice would appear polite.
Evidence of mass camps that the Chinese speak of as re-education camps but that really are concentration camps has emerged sporadically over recent years. Only now are governments and leaders beginning to see and to say that this is unacceptable.
Uyghurs are a Turkic people who speak Uyghur language, very similar to the Uzbek language. They live in what they call East Turkistan and the Chinese call the Xinjiang autonomous region in the north-west of China at the heart of Central Asia and the old Silk Road. The Chinese census puts their population at 11.8 million, many Uyghur leaders believe it is closer to twice that.
CNN News 18 asked Rahima Mahmut from the World Uyghur Congress about the difficulties their people face. “Difficulty itself is not a strong word, we are facing genocide,” she said.
Uyghurs have often faced persecution “since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over East Turkistan in 1949,” she said. “In 1955, it was agreed that the Uyghur region would be autonomous, but the Chinese government has never honoured that agreement.”
Hundreds were killed in local uprisings Ghulja in February 1997 and again in 2009. The Chinese state responded with a crackdown and more strict laws. Many have died in running clashes over years now. In 2014, a new police state emerged and “since 2017 re-education camps that are practically the same as concentration camps,” says Mahmut. She fled in 2000. “Up to three million are now locked up in these facilities without any trial,” she says.
The Chinese appear to be catching them young. “The Bitter Winter organisation has reported that up to 500,000 Uyghur children have been removed from their families and taken to so-called Loving Kindergarten,” says Mahmut. “In fact, these are children’s camps, the children are not allowed any contact with their families.” Xinjiang province is, she says, “one of the largest prisons on earth.”
Not quite a silver lining yet, but a glimmer of hope is now emerging for Uyghurs through recent responses around the world. The US government passed the Uyghur human rights act in June this year. That Act requires various US government agencies to report on human rights violations against Uyghurs and to sanction Chinese officials found guilty of violations.
“The UK has also started to speak up more, and more parliamentarians are raising their concerns,” says Mahmut. But it still is far from enough. “I can see more and more individuals, organisations and parliamentarians raising their concerns and asking for concrete action but very little action has been taken.”
The public needs to do more, she says. “I call on the general public to boycott Chinese goods. We have already launched a call to action against slave labour, and we want people to abandon companies and supply chains involved in forced labour.”
Neighbouring countries, she says, are putting their economic interests above the rights of the Uyghur Muslims. That includes Pakistan, otherwise a political champion of Islam around the world.
“That is one of the most disappointing things that’s happening,” Mahmut says. “China has given massive loans to Pakistan and this is one of the tactics the CCP has been using in all countries. Pakistan has been benefiting from Chinese investment but I feel they are not seeing the danger of the investment from the CCP. China is not going to just stop the atrocities in Tibet, or in the Uyghur region in East Turkistan. They can expand.”
It’s not just Pakistan but many other countries, she says. “The Chinese government made sure to bribe all these countries in advance. And Pakistan and other countries are not seeing the danger.”