Uyghurs persecuted, Pakistan stands with China: Uyghur Leader Dolkun Isa

Dolkun Isa is the chairman of the Germany-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC) and was due to come to India along with others but his Visa was cancelled at the last minute. presents an exclusive conversation with the man, who was recently in the middle of the storm with India and China locking horns over him, in which he bares his heart on the persecution of the Uyghur people:

Mr. Isa how is Ramadan being observed in Xinjiang this year? Many believe that this year was much better for the Uyghur Muslims? Your take?

As it has been in the past, Ramadan will be observed within the boundaries of what is possible, depending on restrictions, which tend to vary from county to county in East Turkestan. From what we can tell from emerging reports, the situation seems about the same as the previous few years, even worse this year with regards to the restrictions. There continues to be restrictions on even the students, teachers, elderly, party members and civil society (though many have reportedly defied the restrictions).

From our perspective, the situation is not much better, but getting worse. Other than Ramadan restrictions this month, the Communist Party has increased its restrictions on religious practices of the Uyghur population in the recent years (e.g. near total control of mosques and imams, sporadic bans on religious/cultural dress, detention of bloggers and webmasters ahead of Ramadan for fear of them speaking out on the subject etc.). Recently, Radio Free Asia reported that a man who was jailed for watching a prohibited “Muslim film” died in detention—likely from torture. Others still have been arrested and jailed for upwards of seven years for praying at home—all religious activity outside state-controlled mosques is now considered an “illegal religious activity” and punishable as such.

There were reports of Chinese government asking for DNA samples before issuing passports in Xinjiang. Have you heard of it? What is your take on this?

Yes, Radio Free Asia I believe broke the story on this. As for the context, Uyghurs have had an incredibly difficult time obtaining travel documents and passports, Human Rights Watch released a report, One Passport, Two Systems, which provided evidence to suggest that Uyghurs and Tibetans in particular are discriminated against when applying for these documents. It may take many years in some cases for applications to be processed.

Given this new information, and keeping in mind that it is only in effect in one northern province, it presents a wholly unreasonable burden on the Uyghurs if they wish to travel abroad. It’s been reported that they will need to supply a blood sample, fingerprints, a voice recording and a three-dimensional image, which will surely have the effect of further limiting the desire of those in the region to jump through all the hoops to attain travel documents—one likely purpose of the policy.

Have you tried to update the OIC about Uyghur human rights issues? What was their response?

This is a frequent question that comes up with regards to the Uyghur issue in the East Turkestan, but if you dig a bit, it’s clear why many Muslim majority countries have been reticent to support the Uyghur cause.

One issue with the OIC’s stance on the Uyghur issue is the close relationship it maintained with the Chinese government, something that presents barrier for all of those who attempt to gain support from states around the world, and therefore, rarely challenge the Chinese on human rights issues.

I think there are at least two primary reasons for the hesitance on the part of the OIC. Firstly, China has been strengthening its relationship with states in North Africa and the Middle East in particular (Xi Jinping recently visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—where he signed accords for strategic partnerships), and is expanding business interests in many states there.

China is also a significant consumer of oil produced in the region and offers an alternative to exports to the West. China is also currently in the process of building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which will link East Turkestan with the Gwadar port in the south of the country and provide access to the ocean.

Secondly, it has also been argued that the reticence to criticize China from the perspective of states across the Middle East and parts of North Africa stems from their own domestic issues with the minority populations (keeping in mind the region that China claims as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was once made up of a vast majority of Uyghur inhabitants prior to 1949), and human rights abuses towards these groups.

Pakistan is an Islamic nation and China’s stable ally. Have you tried approaching it regarding your problems? If yes, then what has been the response so far?

As you said that Pakistan is Islamic country, Uyghurs are also Muslim, but, unfortunately, Pakistan has cooperated with China to crack down on Uyghurs. Pakistan has sent back number of Uyghur refugees to China heeding the latter’s request. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor that has brought a great deal of investment to the country so there is no incentive for Pakistan to criticize China on its treatment of the Uyghur population. We have had no success in reaching the government of Pakistan on this issue.

You were to come to India but then you could not. Would you like to come again?

I was to come to India to attend a human rights conference with fellow activists from a number of different backgrounds, however my visa was cancelled. I would like to visit India in the future if possible.

India has Tibetans living in the country, do you think Uyghur community should get a similar status somewhere?

Uyghurs would prefer to live in their homeland of East Turkestan, but it does help to have allies elsewhere. But in 1949, when the Communist China occupied East Turkistan, couple of hundred Uyghur families escaped from their homeland to India, that time Indian government showed hospitality for them.

There are charges of terrorism against Uyghur people. How do you see that? How do you see Bangkok bomb blasts accused in this regard?

Following 9/11, the Chinese government took a new approach to what they saw was a conflict between them and the Uyghur people. While earlier China was using language with terms such as “crime”, “criminals”, “gangs” “thugs”, after the attacks on September 11th, the central authorities immediately began to exploit the situation. A white paper was produced just months after 9/11 which announced China’s intention to begin cracking down on “terrorism, “terrorists”, and “terrorist activities”. China began to use the inchoate “War on Terror” as a pretext to deal with what they saw was the behaviour that may have threatened their interest in East Turkestan.

In regards to the terrible violence in Bangkok, it is difficult to see this as it only helps with Chinese claims that Uyghur people support violence in some way—which of course could not be farther from the truth. The WUC and the vast majority of Uyghurs wholeheartedly condemn these actions and it is clearly counter-productive to our non-violent cause. But, according to the international media reports the two Uyghur suspects claimed at the court last month that they didn’t have any link with the Bangkok bomb attack. According to some news, one of the two people was not even in Bangkok when the explosion took place.  So it is too early to judge that the Bangkok terrorist attack was done by these two Uyghurs.

What do you think about the Turkistan Islamic Party?

It’s very difficult to get any reliable information about this group and others. Much of what we know is heavily filtered through Chinese state media.

China has also named the so-called “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” (ETIM) as a terrorist group with international connections, despite the academicians having not heard about the existence of the said group prior to 9/11 or the Communist Party’s announcements about them.

What do you want for Xinjiang? Autonomy or Freedom?

We want freedom and the right to self-determination for East Turkistan. Uyghur people want to use peaceful, nonviolent, and democratic means to determine the political future of East Turkestan.