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UAA/UHRP News Update
21-04-05, 10:27
The Wall Street Journal Online


People Power Sends a Message To Oppressive Regimes


April 21, 2005

China watched nervously as Kyrgyzstan President Askar Akayev was toppled from power by a disenchanted populace last month. The resurgence of people power in the sequence of "colored revolutions" in the post-Soviet states -- Kyrgyzstan's tulip revolution followed the orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004 and the rose revolution in Georgia in 2003 -- has brought unprecedented hope to the more than 10 million strong Uighur population of East Turkistan. Now called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, the province lies on China's northwestern frontier and is an area of immense geopolitical and strategic significance.

As demonstrators stormed Mr. Akayev's offices in Bishkek and he fled to Moscow, Uighur people in East Turkistan listened to news of the unfolding of events on clandestine Radio Free Asia broadcasts. Mr. Akayev's resignation became the only significant source of hope in recent years for Uighurs suffering under the oppression of the Beijing, and also for hundreds of thousands of Uighurs facing persecution in exile in China's neighbors among the former Soviet republics of Central Asia -- in particular Kyrgyzstan, one of the most important centers of the Uighur diaspora.

Uighurs, a Turkic, Sunni Muslim people, have close cultural, historical and linguistic ties to other ethnic groups in the Eurasian continent, including the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek, Turkmen, Turkish, Azeri and Tatar people. The most high-profile Uighur dissident, Rebiya Kadeer, was released last month from political imprisonment in China. Now in Washington, D.C. on medical parole after serving five years of an eight year sentence in East Turkistan's capital, Urumchi, she said: "When I heard the news about what happened in Kyrgyzstan, I was so excited that I couldn't sleep. Whatever happens to our brothers and sisters in Kyrgyzstan affects people in East Turkistan."

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Beijing has used the international war on terror to justify harsh repression in East Turkistan. The authorities make little distinction between acts of violence and acts of peaceful resistance and frequently brand Uighurs as "separatists, terrorists and religious extremists." According to Amnesty International, thousands of Uighurs have been detained for political reasons, and many have suffered severe torture. It continues to execute people for political offences. Repression is targeted at the heart of Uighur identity, involving the closure of mosques, restrictions on the use of the Uighur language and the banning of certain Uighur books and journals. Even Uighurs in the government or working for the Communist Party have been disturbed by the intensification of repression since Sept. 11.

Central Asian governments, and in particular Kyrgyzstan, have sought to increase economic cooperation and strategic ties with Beijing by conspiring in the crackdown on Uighurs -- an alliance that is legitimized through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, consisting of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Under Mr. Akayev, Kyrgyzstan had arguably been the most cooperative with Beijing of all the SCO countries. Beijing's aim is to maintain firm control over East Turkistan, and to strengthen China's influence in the important Central Asian region, vital in terms of access to energy resources and as a counter-balance to Washington and Moscow's interests.

Under Mr. Akayev's leadership, Uighurs who had fled oppression in China "disappeared" in Kyrgyzstan and were often forcibly returned to China, where some were executed. Key Uighur leaders have been assassinated in suspicious circumstances, and many Uighur prisoners are held in prison in Bishkek and elsewhere in the region, serving long sentences for offences known to be political.

These efforts have duly been acknowledged by Beijing. During an official visit to Bishkek last September, China's Premier Wen Jiabao expressed thanks for Mr. Akayev's assistance in Beijing's efforts against so-called "East Turkistani separatism and terrorism."

Under Mr. Akayev, the activities of the main Uighur cultural organization in Kyrgyzstan, Ittipak (meaning "unity") were restricted. But already there are signs of change. Within weeks of his fall from power, my organization, the Uighur American Association, which advocates democracy for Uighurs, was invited to meet the new government by a Kyrgyz human-rights organization based in Vienna, Austria and we hope to travel to Bishkek shortly. This is part of an effort to encourage the new leaders to establish alliances with members of civil society and non-governmental organizations.

We hope that not only will a democratic Kyrgyz society provide protection to citizens' rights, but that it will also allow Uighur citizens to participate in government -- the involvement of people of different ethnicities in their governments is a litmus-test of emerging democracies that we are witnessing in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Members of the new leadership have stated publicly that Kyrgyzstan will continue to develop its foreign policy in line with the status quo and that China is an important economic partner and friend. Even so, while in opposition, many of these leaders had an anti-China platform. Some of them even took the risk of criticizing Mr. Akayev's government, while he was in power, for violating international law by forcibly deporting Uighur political activists to China.

While it is too soon to predict the consequences of Mr. Akayev's fall from power for the people of Kyrgyzstan and East Turkistan, it is certain that the most critical test for the new Kyrgyz government in reconfiguring their political future is its relationship with Beijing. The new leaders of the tulip revolution must be acutely aware that events of the past month in Kyrgyzstan send a strong message to the oppressive regimes in the region with zero tolerance for political dissent -- particularly China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Mr. Turkel is a lawyer and president of the Uighur American Association in Washington, D.C.

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