Q&A: Gitmo Uighurs Highlight a Complex Ethnic Problem
Stephen de Tarczynski interviews Uighur activist MAMTIMIN ALA


MELBOURNE, Mar 10 (IPS) - Although United States President Barack Obama was quick to order the closure of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay soon after assuming office, the question of what to do with the roughly 175 current inmates who are unlikely to be prosecuted by the U.S. remains.

Among those due to be released, from a total of some 250 remaining detainees, are a group of 17 Chinese Muslims, ethnic Uighurs from China’s far west who were captured in Pakistan after fleeing bombing in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

Media reports have alleged that the men had been receiving training in Afghanistan as part of their struggle for an independent East Turkestan in what is known in China as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.

While the men had been slated for release into the United States following a U.S. federal court ruling that they were no longer "enemy combatants," an appeals court overturned that decision in February, leaving them with nowhere to go.

The U.S. refuses to send the Uighurs back to China for fear that they will face persecution, while other countries, including Australia, have so far turned down U.S. requests to accept the men.

IPS correspondent Stephen de Tarczynski spoke with Mamtimin Ala, general secretary of the Australian Uighur Association and member of the executive committee of the World Uighur Congress, about the plight of Uighurs both inside and outside China. Ala was granted a protection visa after arriving in Australia in August 2008.

IPS: Are you disappointed by the recent decision by a U.S. federal appeals court to reject the release into the United States of the 17 Uighurs currently being held at Guantánamo Bay?

Mamtimin Ala: Yes, it’s both a disappointment and not what I hoped regarding their resettlement in a free country. It’s a very mixed feeling that I have with the recent court ruling.

IPS: What should happen to these men? Should Australia or another country take them?

MA: Yes, of course. Fundamentally this Guantánamo Bay is not only a U.S. problem. The U.S. captured these people in war zones in Afghanistan or elsewhere so it’s primarily the U.S. government’s responsibility to find a place within the United States to resettle them. But now, since Barack Obama promised to close down the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay within a year, we are more hopeful that the Obama administration will find a more substantial solution for their resettlement. In this sense, first of all I urge the U.S. government to find a solution. But then Australia has also been very active in the war on terror and allied with the United States and other countries to combat terrorism, so I think that not only from a political point of view but also from a humanitarian point of view, Australia should also take their share of the responsibility to take in these Guantánamo Uighurs.

IPS: The Chinese want the 17 Guantánamo Bay Uighurs sent back to China. What do you think would likely happen to these men if they were indeed returned there?

MA: I think there are three implications for the repatriation of the 17 Guantánamo Bay Uighurs. First, by forcing the U.S. government to repatriate the Uighurs, the Chinese government is intending to send an intimidating message to the Uighur population both inside and outside China that Uighurs, like their kinsmen in Guantánamo Bay, have nowhere to go and have no friends to help them out in the world, that they are condemned to be content with Chinese rule.

The second implication is that the repatriation of the Guantánamo Uighurs would intensify attention on the part of Uighurs. Under the continued repressive and indeed assimilation policies of the Chinese government there is always some possibility of being labelled a terrorist people when Uighurs are resorting to any kind of resistance against this very inhuman policy.

This tension, I think, at the same time reflects the deep political dilemma of the Uighur independence movement: either die peacefully or resist against the perpetuation of these policies in the face of the whole world, which is quicker to blame the weak for its confrontation with the strong than to ask questions so as to find the underlying source of this dilemma.

The third implication is that such repatriation could result in the further justification of the repressive policies of Chinese authorities against Uighurs, so I think it could be a very horrifying result for all Uighurs who harbour a great hope for western countries to listen to their plight and help them out.

IPS: At the latest Committee Against Torture - the CAT monitors adherence to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment -meeting held in November last year in Geneva, the Committee reported that it was greatly concerned by allegations regarding targeted torture, ill-treatment and disappearances of people from a number of groups, including Uighurs, by Chinese authorities. Does this surprise you?

MA: It doesn’t surprise me because torture is a very widespread practice in the Chinese prison system and Uighur prisoners, for example, are often forced to make a confession which can be used as a legal basis in the courts. Uighur prisoners are subject to very inhuman and very severe torture. This is a deliberately-designed practice of the Chinese government to intimidate Uighurs against involving themselves in anything harmful to the interests of China. This has a very negative impact, not only on the physical body of Uighur prisoners but also, more importantly and more alarmingly, on the psychological dimensions of Uighurs. This has already created a kind of culture of fear among Uighurs.

IPS: You’ve said recently that one of the aims of China’s vilification of Uighurs is to make Uighurs feel that they are indeed guilty and deserving of the punishment inflicted upon them. How do the authorities go about this?

MA: Uighurs are very fearful of being labelled terrorists. The Chinese government’s intention is to terrorise Uighurs by labelling them as terrorists. This is the logic behind this psychological warfare that Chinese authorities are currently inflicting upon Uighurs, by making them guilty people or making them think that they are the terrorists and hence that they deserve the punishment or deserve the treatment that the Chinese government is implementing.

IPS: Do Uighurs actually feel themselves guilty at times?

MA: If you visit some Uighur websites or discussion forums, Uighurs are quite afraid of being called terrorists by Chinese. Every aspect of Uighurs’ lives has been tremendously affected by this label. Chinese people always vilify Uighurs inside China as terrorist people in order to show that Uighurs are guilty and that Uighurs are very bad people, the enemy from within. That’s why Uighurs cannot accept this label. They don’t want to be categorised by the Chinese government as a terrorist people, as violent and vicious. It’s very hard for Uighurs to live in such a hostile environment.

IPS: The struggle by Tibet against Chinese rule is obviously very well known around the world and also well supported. Why do you think the Uighurs’ struggle is much less well known?

MA: One of the obvious reasons is that Tibetans believe in Buddhism and Uighurs in Islam. That’s the fundamental difference. After 9/11 the whole political rhetoric about Islam was radically changed and there has been a growing sense of "Islamophobia" among some people and among some countries. That’s one of the reasons that the Uighurs’ struggle for self-determination has not gained more support from western countries. And the Dalai Lama is always advocating a peaceful solution for Tibet. Of course, Uighurs are also supporting or advocating a peaceful solution, but since Uighurs are Muslims, some countries are still suspicious of the peaceful nature of the Uighur self-determination movement.

The second reason is that Tibetans have had a longer history than Uighurs to engage in finding a solution. Uighurs went to western countries only after the Ghulja massacre in 1997 [when up to 30 Uighur demonstrators were killed and 100 injured by Chinese police] and before that lots of Uighurs in Turkey and also in other countries initiated activities to demand rights for Uighurs. But at the time the Uighur cause was not well known. After 9/11 the Uighur cause has gained tremendous international attention and more visibility through the media.

IPS: Do you see similarities between the struggles of Uighurs and Tibetans?

MA: Yes, ironically there are more similarities than differences between the struggles of Uighurs and Tibetans against Chinese rule. Despite these similarities some countries are trying to exploit the differences. But even though we have the same kind of political problems with the Chinese government, Uighurs still have much less of a voice in western countries.