Asia, Musings

Learning About Uyghurs from an Uyghur

Lately conversations around the Uyghur issue have been gaining a lot of attention on Indonesian social media. Starting from the increasing coverage on China’s re-education camps where many of its Uyghur population are said to be detained under the guise of “deradicalisation” and “vocational trainings”.

A number of Indonesian ulemas and social media influencers were invited to travel on a state-sponsored trip to Xinjiang province, where a majority of Uyghurs live, and many Indonesian Twitter threads and podcasts discussing the issue went viral. Most of these influential figures and contents support the Chinese government’s narrative, but one thing I saw in common from all this coverage is that none of them featured the perspective of the Uyghurs themselves.

Scepticism is healthy, but when it comes to discrimination & persecution, I believe that we must always listen to those affected too. Which is how I came to write about a story of my Uyghur friend, Anisa*.

A while ago, I had the chance to go on a funded short course programme on human rights and democratisation in South Korea. When they first published the names and countries of origin of each participant on their website, I felt it was quite odd that they withheld one of the participants’ details. I later learnt that this particular participant is an Uyghur woman from Xinjiang, China.

On the first day of the program, Anisa told all of us her story. Several years ago, she left Urumqi, the capital city of Xinjiang, to do her Master’s degree abroad. Yet, three years ago, the Chinese government under President Xi Jinping started a crackdown on Uyghurs and other Muslim minority ethnic groups in Xinjiang, such as the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyzs. Many of the Uyghurs seen as a “threat”, especially those with family or relatives abroad, mysteriously disappeared into the government’s re-education camps.

Due to her fear that she or her family will have to undergo similar treatment by the government, Anisa was forced to apply for asylum in the country where she was doing her Master’s. At her family’s request and for the sake of their safety, she also cut all contact with them. It has now been 3 years since she last communicated directly with her family. She has also had to be extremely cautious so that she doesn’t get on the radar of China’s surveillance – even despite the fact that she has had no involvement whatsoever in any kind of separatist or radicalist movements. She was just a normal postgraduate student.

At first glance, I wouldn’t have guessed the weight of the burden on her shoulders. A cosmopolitan and intelligent young woman with a penchant for casual wear, Anisa seems most comfortable in a T-shirt and a pair of worn jeans, her shoulder-length hair tied back in a ponytail. While she isn’t particularly religious, she’s a proud Muslim, and would pray for her family every night.

In our many conversations, I told Anisa about the complexity of the Uyghur issue in Indonesia. How the Uyghur issue has been politicised by the right-wing Islamist groups, how the progressives hesitate to speak up on the Uyghur issue due to the fear of strengthening Sinophobic sentiments and discrimination against the Chinese Indonesian community, and how the influential Indonesian figures who visited or studied in China became effective mouth pieces for the Chinese government, further negating the international media’s coverage on the oppression of Uyghurs.

I then asked for her opinion.

The persecution experienced by the Uyghur community is a human rights issue, not a religious one!” she emphasised.

She realised that this issue is often politicised by both western countries and Islamist groups. “But it’s still hugely disappointing for us that a majority of Muslim countries are staying silent about the oppression that the Chinese government is doing against the Uyghurs. The whole ‘Muslim solidarity’ thing is bullshit.”

I also clarified with her a few things that I read and hear in the media, for instance the issue of separatism and terrorism among Uyghurs. She explained that while there is an anti-Chinese sentiment among Uyghurs and a number of terrorist acts carried out by Uyghur individuals in the last few years, it has a long and complicated history too.

Historically, the Uyghur community is part of the Turkic ethnicity, similar to the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyzs. In 1933, the Xinjiang region was declared as the East Turkestan Republic by a group of Uyghur leaders. But this region was then annexed by the Chinese government in 1949. Despite being the majority ethnicity in Xinjiang, the Uyghurs have vastly different physical, cultural, and religious characteristics to most Chinese people, a majority of whom belong to the Han ethnicity.

The repression, surveillance, and forced assimilation enacted by the government to the Uyghur community eventually led to resistance and anti-government sentiments among the people. However, most Uyghurs are not involved in any separatist or extremist movements, which is a reason often cited by the government to justify their treatment of Uyghurs. They mainly just want to live a peaceful, normal life like everyone else.

I also asked Anisa why the Hui ethnicity, another Muslim-majority ethnicity, as well as other Indonesian Muslims can still carry out their religious practices in relative peace, while the Uyghurs are extremely limited and controlled. Her answer? “Because what the Chinese government is doing is a form of cultural genocide which specifically targets the Uyghur ethnicity.” In other words, the state aims to erase the Uyghurs’ cultural identity.

And because a majority of the Uyghurs are Muslims, religious expressions are considered as a form of their identity. This led to the government’s ban on long beards, hijabs and niqabs for Uyghur men and women. Their local Uyghur language, which uses Arabic letters with Arabic and Persian influence, is being increasingly controlled in its usage – and even banned in the re-education camps.

So what is actually the purpose of these re-education camps? To put it simply: an indoctrination of loyalty to the “Big Brother” – President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) – to erase the Uyghurs’ ethnic identity. Thus, those who are captured and forced to serve in those camps aren’t justs those who are religious or seem religious, but also community leaders like academics, artists, musicians, teachers, and even peacebuilding actors.

Out of all this, the case of Ilham Tohti really stood out to me and broke my heart. An economist with a passion for peacebuilding, Ilham Tohti started the Uyghur Online website to raise awareness and promote intercultural dialogue between the Uyghur and Han communities. Yet despite being a CCP supporter (and not religious, according to Anisa who had met him) he was jailed for life under separatism charges. But cases like Ilham are not uncommon. Anisa says that every Uyghur in Xinjiang would have a relative or at least know someone who is detained in those camps.

My encounter with Anisa moved me greatly and left a huge impact on my heart. It made me realise all the more the importance of clarifying information on persecution and discrimination, particularly those that are structural and perpetrated by the state, to first-hand sources and victims. Far too many information on Uyghurs has failed to include an Uyghur voice. This wasn’t my story to tell, and I wish with all my heart that one day, one day, it will be safe enough for her to raise her voice, and tell it in her own words.

 

An Indonesian version of this writing has appeared on Islami.co’s website.

*) her name is disguised for privacy.

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