In this special report, we take a glimpse into the Uyghur issue, which periodically hits the headlines. Who exactly are the Uyghurs and where do they come from?
A few days ago, a Uyghur was reportedly named among China’s top 10 artistes. Dilraba Dilmrat, a woman of Uyghur ethnicity made it into China’s top 10 in the Artiste Commercial Impact chart during the recent 2018 China Cultural Entertainment Index Ceremony in Beijing.
This contrasts somewhat with the scenario presented in October, when 11 Uyghur refugees from China’s Xinjiang province were reportedly sent to Turkey by the Malaysia government after immigration charges against them were dropped.
Apparently, they had entered Malaysia as a temporary transit point and hoped to sort out their refugee status with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) before joining an existing Uyghur community in Turkey.
If an Uyghur can be celebrated in China as an artiste, why then were some Uyghurs fleeing from their homeland in October this year? And why did Malaysia send them to Turkey and not back to China? Who really are the Uyghurs and what’s going on in China?
What can be found from a variety of articles on websites is that the Uyghurs are of Turkic descent and live in East and Central Asia, having done so for hundreds of years. Although spread over a large area, people of Turkic descent share similarities in religion, culture, language and appearance, which often contains both European and Asian characteristics.
Apparently, the Uyghurs are one of 55 officially recognised ethnic minorities in China and currently number around 10-11 million people. Most Uyghurs speak in the Uyghur language, which is a Turkic language. They are Sunni Muslim, and Islam is an important part of their life and identity.
A cursory glance at their history tells us that there were apparently Uyghur kingdoms, city-states, even empires. There have also been several territory disputes (or wars as others put it) in this east and central Asian part of the world for many years.
Fast forward and China gained control of the East Turkestan region around 1949 and renamed the region, where the majority of Uyghurs reside, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Xinjiang means new frontier, and it is the largest of China’s administrative regions, sharing a border with eight countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – making it strategically significant.
The Uyghurs live along the Silk Road route, where in the past much trade and cultural exchanges took place. Currently the main economic activity of the Uyghur community is said to be agriculture, especially the fruit and silk industry.
There is a lot online about Uyghur cuisine which is described as being similar to dishes among other ethnic groups in Central Asia. Common Uyghur dishes include laghman, which is a special type of handmade noodle, served topped with stir-fried meat and vegetables, and polu, which involves frying ingredients (carrots, meat, onions) first in oil and then steaming the dish to which rice and water have been added. Raisins and dried apricots are sometimes further additions to the steamed dish.
Living along the ancient paths of the Silk Road has meant that Uyghur cuisine has been influenced by elements of far eastern and Chinese cooking as well as Middle Eastern spices and cuts of meat.
Uyghur handicraft is also well known around Central Asia for its knives, carpets, silk and utensils (such as bowls, plates, teapots) which are often intricately and colourfully decorated.
A wealth of Uyghur literature dates back centuries featuring Uyghur scholars, writers and poets. The Uyghurs also have their vibrant dances and ethnic music, complete with their traditional musical instruments.
The Uyghur Cultural Centre, which opened in Kashgar in 2010, apparently seeks to preserve the Muslim Uighur community’s unique culture and their heritage.
That the Uyghurs come from a rich history full of culture and tradition cannot be denied. So what is the issue then for the Uyghurs in China? Why were 11 Uighurs in transit in Malaysia in October 2018 in search of refugee status?
Numerous articles on line allude to the situation facing Uyghurs in China including two recent articles – one from the BBC “China Uighers: All you need to know on Muslim crackdown” and another from the Washington Post “China is creating concentration camps in Xinjiang. Here’s how we hold it accountable”.
The allegations of persecution and ill-treatment of the Uyghurs from these articles and from numerous other sites make for a chilling read.
China, however, has a different take. At its Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 6 November 2018, it dismissed claims that it is holding 1 million or more ethnic Uyghurs (and others) in concentration camps and allegations of ill-treatment at these camps
The Chinese government claim Xinjiang faces a serious threat from Muslim extremists and separatist groups who plot attacks and stir up tensions with the ethnic Han majority. China claims it is committed to protecting its citizens’ freedom of religious beliefs while respecting and protecting religious cultures.
So while the reports from human rights groups are grim, China is putting forward a different picture. What are people on the outside to believe?
Uyghur people around the world have begun to speak out about the situation but their voices are perhaps not loud enough. Understandably, there is fear of repercussion towards their families in China.
Perhaps the only way for the world to really know what is going on would be for China to invite an impartial fact-finding mission with unimpeded access, preferably led by the United Nations, to shed light on the real situation in that region.
Photos from the internet