Uighurs as the invisible victims of the international system
Kılıç Buğra Kanat
Daily Sabah, April 12, 2015
The situation of Uighurs in China shows that what Assad did in Syria does not stay in Syria. Methods of repression spread and embolden other regimes. If this is not be stopped it will become a model for other oppressive governments around the world.
It is not just Syrians or other Arabs that lose as a result of the situation in Syria. Humanity has lost much due to this conflict. The extent of the tragedy in Syria has blinded us to human rights violations and repression in the world. People who suffer the worst injustices and discrimination and are being violated and persecuted are increasingly becoming invisible to the international community. As the world fails to act to stop the horrible injustices in Syria, other authoritarian regimes have stepped up their repression. They have taken advantage of the international context, the attention deficit of Western governments when the issue is human rights and violent groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to legitimize repression. During this period, Uighurs, a population of Turkic-speaking Muslims in northwestern China, have once again become invisible victims of the international system.
The conflict in Syria has resulted in various humanitarian disasters and tragedies in the region. Hundreds of thousands of people have died and millions are displaced. The pain of the families of the victims and the trauma of whole societies will take years to overcome. The country has lost its infrastructure and communities are divided. However, the tragic consequences of the conflict in Syria are not limited to Syria or its wider region. There are also important political consequences of this conflict for the region and for the world that have become increasingly visible in the last few years.
One of these outcomes demonstrated itself last week as a result of the U.S. decision to restore military aid to Egypt. The fact that pushed the U.S. to repeat this mistaken policy was the belief that bringing political `stability` to an authoritarian regime would help in fighting radical, violent groups. As mentioned in my previous column, these authoritarian leaders actually turn the countries they rule into magnets of extremism and breeding grounds for radicalization instead of bringing stability and security for Western countries. Picking the lesser evil to defeat radical groups usually does not end the worse evil. Instead, it makes all evils more dangerous and out of control. This mistaken assumption to defeat extremism has made a comeback in recent years as a result of the conflict in Syria.
The situation in Syria has also generated global consequences. In places far from the Middle East, authoritarian governments started to use the conflict in Syria as an excuse to suppress the democratic demands of the people in their countries. The conflict and massacres in Syria demonstrated the fate of countries and societies if there are waves of protest against the state. These regimes tried to gain legitimacy for their repressive rule by pointing to the destruction and death in Syria.
In addition, the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad`s regime despite its horrendous crimes has emboldened other authoritarian regimes. They see that a regime that uses chemical weapons against its own people with impunity and other types of crimes against humanity do not generate much international reaction from Western countries and thus, these regimes become more aggressive in their use of force.
Uighurs in China have had to endure one of the most unfortunate situations since the beginning of the events in the Middle East. First, starting with the Arab Spring, Chinese authorities increased their grip on the region and targeted Uighurs in particular, who have been considered the usual suspects since the Urumqi riots in 2009 and whose religious affinity with the people in the Near East was thought to be a potential catalyst for the rise of movements for human rights and democracy among them. Freedom of expression was seriously curtailed, and to stop the impact of Arab Spring events, the level of censorship of the Internet was tightened. Most influential intellectuals who expressed some form of opposition to Chinese policies in the region were arrested and given very long prison sentences. A Uighur professor, Ilham Tohti, was arrested with his students and given a life sentence because of his writings and lectures. Although there was some criticism from the international community, the Chinese government was indifferent to their reactions and enjoyed freedom of action in its suppression of rights and liberties in the region.
These policies, in particular, Tohti`s arrest, sent a wave of signals to Uighurs in the region. For many, it demonstrated the impossibility of speaking against the state about repression and ethnic discrimination, so some people began to flee, leaving their loved ones behind. In some instances, such as those that settled in Kayseri by following a route from China to Southeast Asia and then to Turkey, refugees find a place to live. In some others, however, refugees were not that lucky. Some refugees were arrested in Southeast Asian countries and some even face the threat of extradition. However, despite these risks, these Uighurs, with their families, decided that living in China was riskier than fleeing.
In the later phases of the Syrian conflict, another dimension of the conflict started to emerge. With the rise of radical groups such as ISIS, many authoritarian countries around the world, including China, started to use a trump card that they had utilized in several different circumstances. Just after 9/11 and the launch of the global war on terror, countries such as Uzbekistan and China started to call any form of opposition and dissent in their countries terrorism or extremism. Criminalizing dissent is an old method for suppressive regimes. However, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, the international context provided an opportunity for these regimes to pursue this goal as a form of international campaign and ask for international support to crack down on all forms of subversive activity in their countries. With the increasing rise of extremism and groups such as ISIS in Syria, China started to label all forms of opposition in Xinjiang, where Uighurs live, as terrorism and religious extremism. In that region, China increased religious restrictions on the pretext of fighting against terrorism. Uighurs were banned from fasting during Ramadan and practicing religion has become increasingly difficult for the Uighurs. For example, campaigns were launched to stop women from wearing headscarves and men were not allowed to grow beards. As the international community kept silent, the Chinese government increased the pressure. The situation became tragicomic when the government made imams in Xinjiang dance in the street and take an oath that they will not teach religion to children. The increasing repression led to an increasing number of demonstrations and riots. To stop these demonstrations, force was used indiscriminately, which in turn raised the number of violent incidents in the region. Each of these demonstrations and violent incidents were portrayed as incidents of religious extremism.
The situation of Uighurs in China shows that what Assad did in Syria does not stay in Syria. His methods spread to others and emboldened other regimes. If this is not stopped, it will become a model for other repressive rulers in the world. It may be a good time to think about how to stop Assad and how not to let the situation become a source of strength for others and how not to forget persecution and human rights violations in various parts of the world.