Panel Explores Uyghurs’ Plight

(L-r) James Clad, Ilshat Hassan and Alim Seytoff speak on Uyghurs and the Xinjiang crisis. (Staff Photo Phil Pasquini)

By Elaine Pasquini

The Central Asia–Caucasus Institute (CACI) hosted a March 26 forum at Washington, DC’s Middle East Institute on “The Xinjiang Crisis and the Rest of Central Asia: Impacts and Responses.”

Ilshat Hassan, president of the Uyghur American Association, described the efforts of the Chinese to force the Uyghur population in its Xinjiang province to assimilate into Chinese culture. “After 2014 it was almost like a war on the Uyghurs,” Hassan declared. “The Chinese were trying to destroy our identity and culture,” he said. “In 2017 they set up the re-education camps for Uyghurs, which they call vocational training centers and boarding schools, but, whatever the name, we know them as concentration camps.”

Out of an estimated population of 11 million, presently one to two million Uyghurs are being held in massive internment camps, according to a recent U.N. human rights report.

“The name Xinjiang means ‘new region’ which suggests that it was a new region, not some ancient Chinese territory,” CACI founder S. Frederick Starr told the audience. “And the official name of the region is ‘Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,’ a four word title with every word problematic.”

Starr noted the Uyghurs were the first Turkic people to have their own written language. “We’re talking about a significant group of people with real history and with a real past identity,” he said.

Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur Service at Radio Free Asia, discussed reporting on the human rights violations and the political situation in the Uyghur region. “We have confirmed the detention of high level Uyghur intellectuals, artists, singers, writers and historians by the Chinese authorities,” he stated.

“This is an issue of profound sensitivity to the Chinese, which reflects an insecurity in their position,” said James Clad, director of the Asian security program at the American Foreign Policy Council and a former foreign correspondent for the Far East Economic Review. “They attribute to Uyghurs a great deal of malign intent. The Chinese are unsure of themselves and see the Uyghurs as a threat because they refuse to be assimilated and do not do the type of things the Chinese expect them to do.”

The attitude in the proximate countries, he argued, “is to look anywhere other than at the problem itself, certainly not in any formal way to raise it with the Chinese authorities.”

Asked by an audience member which Muslim countries have taken a public stand for the Uyghurs, Clad responded: “The Saudis were very helpful in finding places of safety for Uyghurs, which is not well known.”

Sean R. Roberts, director of international development studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, pointed out that Indonesia, Malaysia and Turkey have stood up for the Uyghurs.

The religious connection is another aspect, Roberts said. “Among those Central Asians who have become more religious in recent years as they begin to understand the details of what is happening to the Uyghurs, Kazaks and Kirghizs inside China, they understand that part of what is happening is not only the erasure of identity, but also of the Islamic religion entirely.”

An important aspect, Roberts noted, is the idea of  “first they came for the Uyghurs.” Inside the Central Asian states, “I think people see China as a major part of their future,” he explained. “And they feel that if this is the way they are treating the Uyghurs, they are worried about what happens next.”

In conclusion, Hassan poignantly stated: “My brothers were killed. I haven’t seen my mother or three sisters for three years and I don’t know if they are still alive. I’m a proud U.S. citizen and I want my government to take action.”