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Changing the Guard at the World Uyghur Congress
Yitzhak Shichor, The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief
Beginning in the 1920s, Uyghurs have claimed the region, known since the mid-18th century as Xinjiang (or the New Frontier), as their homeland . This region had been beyond the reach of the Chinese empire for nearly a thousand years, from the 750s to the 1750s, before it was finally reoccupied by the Qing Dynasty. Even then, Chinese control of the region, which officially became a province of China in 1884, was superficial and shaky. In addition to having to cope with the numerous rebellions, the central government found it difficult to govern the region effectively, given its great distance from the country’s capital. China's weakness in governance and lack of internal cohesiveness eventually allowed for the establishment of the Eastern Turkestan Republic (ETR) under Soviet auspices in November 1944. During this period, the ETR was ruled by a coalition that included Xinjiang's main nationalities, the most predominant of which were the Uyghurs.
In the fall of 1949, however, the ETR collapsed when Chinese Communist soldiers “peacefully liberated” Xinjiang with the Janus-faced support of the Soviet Union. ETR leaders who remained in Xinjiang underwent systematic persecution and quickly disappeared. Other ETR leaders escaped, some to Central Asia and some to India, including Mehmet Emin Bughra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who would become the leading figures of the Uyghur diaspora. Both settled in Turkey in the early 1950s, winning the moral and material support of Ankara, which at that time did not recognize Beijing and had sent troops to fight the Chinese alongside the UN and U.S. forces in the Korean War.
Using Turkey as a base, Bughra, and after his death in 1965, Alptekin, repeatedly raised the issue of Uyghur independence during meetings with world leaders, in letters and petitions and in the media. Yet, no serious attempts were made to create a universal forum to represent and promote the Uyghur cause. For one, communications technology was neither sophisticated nor extensive enough. Furthermore, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), nearly cut off from the entire world, was immune to international pressures and criticism. Given that a significant portion of the Uyghur diaspora lived under Soviet rule—and in spite of Moscow's manipulation of the Uyghurs against China at the height of the Sino-Soviet conflict—it would have been impossible to mobilize the Uyghur population into an umbrella organization under Western auspices. Needless to say, during the height of the Cold War, the West was not overly concerned with human rights or with the fate of oppressed nationalities.
Within a dozen years, however, the situation changed dramatically. With the death of Mao Zedong, China launched extensive reforms that, among other things, led to an apparent, though not necessarily genuine, relaxation of social and cultural restrictions. No less important were the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Central Asian republics. During this period, China had also become increasingly integrated into the international community, exposing it to criticism from Western governments and NGOs for its human rights violations. Accompanying the changes in the political sphere were advances in communications and media technology, which enabled the Uyghurs to target a more global audience with their message of independence. While the Uyghurs became hopeful that these changes might lead to greater territorial autonomy or even independence, by the early 1990s it had become clear that Beijing had no intention of providing them with any domestic or international space.
Recognizing that little could be done within China to convince Beijing otherwise, the leadership of the Uyghur diaspora turned their efforts toward the creation of an organization that could represent their interests in the international arena. The initial attempt at forming a universal Uyghur organization was in December 1992 when the Eastern Turkestan World National Congress (later renamed the First East Turkestan National Assembly) convened in Istanbul. The Congress denounced China’s brutal policies in Xinjiang and called for Eastern Turkestan’s independence, though it failed to produce an effective organization that could coordinate such activities. A second attempt was made six years later, in December 1998, when over 40 Uyghur leaders and some 300 representatives from 18 countries established the Eastern Turkestan National Center (ETNC) in Istanbul to serve as the international umbrella organization for Uyghur associations throughout the world and as a de facto Eastern Turkestan government-in-exile. Yet, this organization was by no means universal. Radical Uyghur groups, primarily in Central Asia, rejected the ETNC's emphasis on non-violence and excluded themselves from the Center. Moreover, by this time, the PRC had begun to apply pressure on Turkey and, within a year, the ETNC headquarters was moved to Munich.
On October 16, 1999, the Second East Turkestan National Assembly unanimously upgraded the East Turkestan National Center to the East Turkestan National Congress. Yet, there remained a number of independent Uyghur organizations, and on April 16, 2004, following months of preparation, the Eastern Turkestan National Congress merged with the World Uyghur Youth Congress (both located in Munich) to create the WUC. The WUC’s primary objective, undoubtedly affected by the events of September 11 and Chinese accusations of “terrorist activities,” was “to promote the right of the Uyghur people to use peaceful, nonviolent and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan” . Reflecting its pragmatic and flexible stance, the Congress’ mission statement purposely avoided the use of the word “independence,” emphasizing instead democracy and self-determination.
Erkin Alptekin, the son of Isa Yusuf Alptekin (who died in 1995), was elected in 2004 as the first WUC president for a self-imposed term limit of two years. Born in 1939, Erkin was only t10-years-old when his family escaped from Xinjiang to Kashmir and later to India. From the early 1970s to the mid-1990s, he was employed by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in Munich as the assistant director of the Nationality Services. In addition, he served as the director of RFE/RL’s Uyghur Division until early 1979 when the broadcasts were discontinued and the division was dismantled—a U.S. concession to Beijing to enable the establishment of U.S.-PRC diplomatic relations. Only a year before, Erkin had published a book that was bitterly hostile to communism in general and to China in particular . Even after his tenure at RFE/RL, Erkin continued to promote the Uyghur cause, and in early 1991, founded the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe (ETUE) and became its first chairman. The same year, he became one of the founders of The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and in 1999, became its General Secretary.
As the president of the WUC, Erkin led its leaders in constructing objectives that represented a clear choice of pragmatic policy and activism. In the post-September 11 environment of heightened fear and increased monitoring of international and domestic terrorist activities, it was necessary for Uyghur activists to underline the nonviolent nature of their struggle. WUC leaders were primarily younger individuals who were born in Xinjiang and had lived, at least for a period, under Chinese communist rule. Many of them had received university education and were often fluent in foreign languages. They were painfully aware of the limits to their visions, recognizing that most governments were not willing to risk their relationships with China to support Uyghur independence, and so they consciously moderated their message.
Yet, a minority of Uyghurs rejected the moderate stance of the WUC and was unwilling to compromise on what they viewed as the fundamental goal of independence. Rather than join the WUC, in October 2004 the radical minority formed the Republic of East Turkestan Government-in-Exile (ETGE), headed by Yusuf Anwar, in Washington, D.C. Tension gradually began to build between the two Uyghur organizations. WUC members criticized the ETGE as a hollow organization with radical members whose dogmatic objectives were unrealistic. The ETGE responded by accusing the WUC of treason and of compromising the goal of independence for the sake of a virtual autonomy that Beijing would not grant. While a two-line struggle—moderates on one side and radicals on the other—would have been beneficial to the national liberation movement, within two years the ETGE disbanded as an organization.
As the remaining international Uyghur umbrella organization, the WUC is in a unique position to represent the concerns of the Uyghur people. During its recent Second General Assembly, the WUC reiterated its adherence to the objectives of defending “the human rights, religious freedom and democracy of the Uyghur people.” More importantly, the meeting was, as Erkin Alptekin stated, “a new beginning” for the organization. As Erkin stepped down after his two-year term, human rights activist Rebiya Kadeer was unanimously elected as the new president of the WUC. Kadeer is by no means as eloquent as Alptekin, and, in fact, she can hardly speak English. Yet, she possesses credibility that is often difficult to find among the diasporic Uyghur community. As a successful businesswoman, Kadeer was elected to the government of Xinjiang in 1987 and promoted to the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in 1992. In August 1999, however, she was arrested on her way to meet a U.S. Congress delegation in Urumqi and suffered personal persecution by the Chinese authorities, spending nearly six years in prison until she was released on March 17, 2005, due to international (primarily U.S.) pressure. She was allowed to leave China for the United States where her husband was living, though three of her sons as well as other family members remain imprisoned and persecuted in China. Nicknamed “the mother of the Uyghur people,” she quickly became the president of the Uyghur American Association and was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize. Condemning the nomination, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman stated on September 12 that she was not qualified to represent “Chinese Uyghurs” and accused her of being a member of a terrorist organization (Xinhua, September 12). Moreover, Beijing warned Norway that awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to Kadeer would harm relations between the two countries (DPA, September 22). Unfazed by Beijing’s threats of retaliation against her sons, Kadeer declared, “I promise that I will peacefully struggle for [the] Uyghur people’s freedom and human rights until they have them.”
With its 25 affiliated organizations, the WUC is now the outstanding representative of all Uyghurs worldwide. Beijing may find the WUC, now led by Kadeer who has firsthand and updated knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang, more difficult to oppose. While this is unlikely to translate into tangible concessions to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, such as greater autonomy or independence, it certainly implies that the Uyghurs, who have long been disunited, isolated and passive, are now much more united and effective in pursuing their cause.
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