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Freedom-Loving Uighurs Demand Dignity in China

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Since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has never fostered peaceful and amicable relationships with the indigenous populations of historically non-Chinese territories. They are the Uighur people of East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang), and the Tibetan and Mongolian peoples, conquered by the Manchu Qing Empire during its nearly three-century rule of China. Communist China's policy toward these territories and peoples has been an intensified continuation of colonial rule.

After 65 years of Chinese rule in their homelands, the relationships between the Chinese authorities and the Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians have become more contentious than ever. China's denunciation of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's "Middle Way" of accepting Chinese sovereignty over Tibet, the latest violation of the "One Country Two Systems" promise to Hong Kong, and in East Turkestan, the arrest of moderate Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti, have practically burned the bridge of peaceful political resolution. Mr. Tohti, a professor at Beijing's Central Nationalities University, has been held incommunicado for the past six months for peacefully advocating dialogue and reconciliation between the Chinese and Uighur peoples, and urging Chinese leaders to respect the legitimate rights of the Uighurs.

Of the three indigenous peoples, the Uighurs have proved the most resistant to China's repressive rule. Since the Uighurs are Muslim, the September 11 terror attacks in the United States provided China with a perfect opportunity to repackage its heavy-handed repression in East Turkestan as a "fight against terrorism." Cashing in on the justified fear of Islamic terrorism by Western governments, China has been on a global public relations crusade demonizing Uighur people's legitimate political demands as "Islamic terrorism."

While the CCP had paid lip service to self-rule in the early days of Chinese communist rule and declared ethnic "autonomous regions" for the Uighurs, Tibetans and Mongolians, these indigenous peoples have never enjoyed any autonomy since Chinese officials wield all the military, political and economic powers. On the contrary, China has stationed large numbers of military forces in East Turkestan, Tibet and Southern Mongolia in order to crush any sign of unrest for self rule, strengthened its security apparatus to closely monitor and crackdown the political activities of indigenous groups, exploited their abundant natural resources, and flooded these colonies with millions of Chinese settlers to solidify its control, and eventually marginalize and assimilate the non-Chinese peoples.

China's strategy has been three-pronged: first, denounce the indigenous peoples' legitimate and peaceful political demands as "separatism" and demonize the respectable political figures among them; second, deploy security forces to suppress protest, and accuse the indigenous peoples of being "separatists," "terrorists," and "religious extremists," and portray Chinese settlers as victims to justify the subsequent extra-judicial crackdown.

And finally, China has implemented policies of "cultural genocide" by prohibiting the assertion of indigenous identities, banning the use of their languages, criminalizing important aspects of their traditional religious beliefs and practices and discriminating against Uighurs institutionally. By denying economic opportunities, Uighurs have been left in abject poverty, and forced to accept assimilation.

The Uighurs are indeed Muslim, but the Uighur issue is not about terrorism, jihadism or establishing a caliphate -- as China wants the world to believe. It is about a colonized people's legitimate demands to live with dignity, human rights and self-determination in the 21st century.

The Uighurs resist Chinese rule because it is inherently despotic. Uighur refugees now say that East Turkestan has become a police state. Chinese special forces have been carrying out security operations in predominantly Uighur towns and cities since May, when President Xi Jinping announced a one-year anti-terror campaign in East Turkestan. Under the Chinese military's rules of engagement, soldiers were given the green light to shoot and kill any Uighur during a confrontation.

The arrival of the Holy Month of Ramadan and the fifth anniversary of the Urumchi Massacre, in which untold numbers of peaceful Uighur protestors were gunned down by Chinese soldiers on July 5, 2009, have made the political situation worse as China seems determined to keep a tight lid on the Uighur people through systematic intimidation, mass show trials, heavy sentencing and executions. The future looks bleak for the Uighurs, and other indigenous peoples in China, if the international community chooses to turn a blind eye to their situation.

At this critical juncture, it is imperative for the United States, European Union, Organization of Islamic Conference, and the United Nations to bluntly tell China to stop the ongoing security operations in East Turkestan and stop the systematic intimidation of Uighurs, who should be allowed to fast during Ramadan and practice their faith. Without diplomatic pressure from the Western and Muslim world, the situation in East Turkestan can only deteriorate -- at great human cost and postponing indefinitely the political resolution that the issue of East Turkestan needs.