Oppressed Uighurs in East Turkestan (China’s Xinjiang Province) are neglected relics of the “big power” politics that informed the 1945 Yalta Conference’s cynical division of Europe and Asia. As President George W. Bush declared in Riga, Latvia on May 6, 2005, “[T]he Yalta Conference was a huge mistake in history.”
While history has largely redeemed the assignments of Central and Eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere of dictatorial influence, Uighur subjugation under Chinese Communist (PRC) tyranny has intensified. The largely unknown tale of the Uighur betrayal at Yalta deserves telling. Partial amends by the United States remain feasible for 17 Uighurs unjustly detained at Guantanamo Bay despite President Bush’s concession that none are “enemy combatants.”
The Uighur people occupy a corner of Central Asia called “Xinjiang or the New Territory” by China. In the 19th century, they were a pawn of the Russian and British Empires. Sporadic uprisings against their oppressors eventuated in the short-lived establishment of an independent Uighur republic in 1944.
But Soviet dictator Josef Stalin quickly exerted control over the new republic through KGB infiltration of the Uighur leadership. As a derivative of the Yalta Conference, Stalin signed the Sino-Soviet Friendship Treaty on Aug. 14, 1945, which sold out the independent East Turkestan to China. The United States acquiesced because it wished to strengthen the hand of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-sheik in his civil war with Communist Mao Tse-tung. Further, the United States then thought that the Soviet Union would be a cooperative partner in advancing its policies in the Far East.
The 1945 Pact was followed by the Sino-Soviet Treaty inked by Stalin and Mao in Moscow on Feb. 14, 1950, which extinguished any idea of an independent Uighur republic for the duration of the Cold War. Chairman Mao is said to have clucked, “Xinjiang is a colony, a Chinese colony.”
Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Central and Eastern Europe escaped from Soviet clutches. In 1991, the Soviet Union disintegrated. Former Soviet republics recaptured their sovereignty - for example, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Georgia, Ukraine, and Armenia. Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Turkmens also declared independence.
Uighurs believed their hour was at hand. In April 1990, they organized the Barin Uprising, followed by a large scale nonviolent demonstration in the Hotan region in 1995. In Feb. 5-7, 1997, Uighurs in Ili region demonstrated peacefully for freedom from Chinese rule. The PRC crushed the demonstration with military force slaying 407 unarmed civilians. Many Uighurs were arrested and sentenced to execution within seven days. The Tiananmen Massacre was a tea party in comparison.
With the witting or unwitting assistance of the United States, Uighur persecution has climbed since the 1997 atrocities. After Sept. 11, 2001, and to elicit the PRC’s non-opposition to invading Iraq, the United States designated the East Turkistan Islamic Party (ETIM), a phantom organization, as a foreign terrorist organization in August 2002.
The PRC exulted at the counter-terrorist pretext available to destroy Uighurs and their non-Han Chinese culture. Uighur activists were falsely accused of terrorism and executed. The Uighur language was purged from the classroom and cultural events. At a meeting of the National People’s Congress on Jan. 18, 2008, Mr. Rozi Ismail, head of the Justice Department in Xinjiang, reported more than 1,000 political cases during the previous five years. More than 15,000 Uighurs had been arrested and sentenced to prison for a term of years, for life, or executed.
Since 2002, the PRC has forcibly relocated young Uighur women. In 2007, the number of relocations surpassed 1.5 million, and approximately 130,000 had been directly relocated to Han Chinese regions, such as Tianjin, Shandong, Jiansu, etc. Of that number, more than 80 percent were Uighur women. During the last three years, relocations reached 3.3 million, and more than 90,000 were moved directly as cheap labor to factories in Chinese villages and hamlets. At the same time, the PRC dispatched large numbers of Han Chinese in the opposite direction to achieve demographic ethnic cleansing. The United States has remained largely mum to avoid friction with the PRC and jeopardize its financing of staggering United States debt.
Uighurs do not expect the United States to employ military force or threats to vindicate their self-determination, as it did for Kosovar Albanians persecuted by Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Serbia was not an international power like the PRC, and commanded no permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. But there is a much smaller gesture the United States could make to demonstrate its sympathy for Uighur freedom over PRC tyranny.
At present, 17 Uighurs wrongfully detained for seven years at Guantanamo Bay remain imprisoned. After the United States conceded the wrongfulness in habeas corpus proceedings ordered by the United States Supreme Court, U.S. District Judge Richard Urbina directed that the detainees be released into the United States. They cannot be returned to the PRC under United States law because of the certainty of torture.
Judge Urbina’s ruling has been blocked pending an appeal in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.
But the Uighur ordeal should end now. President-elect Barack Obama through his parole authority or Congress by statute should legalize the presence of the 17 innocent Uighurs in the United States. What better way to honor the Statue of Liberty than to welcome all those yearning to be free?