ISTANBUL (TURKISH JOURNAL) – By Janet Ekstract – Events surrounding the plight of the Uighur people and the Muslim minority in China’s far western province are currently tenuous and complicated.
China is facing increasing international pressure and criticism over what is being termed its systematic repression of Muslim Uighurs – allegedly being subjected to what is being labeled prolonged physical and psychological abuse.
China was quite adamant about recent Turkish statements made to the press about its treatment of the Uighur people.
On Monday, China openly refuted the Turkish government’s claim that a famous Uighur poet, Abdurehim Heyit, died in Chinese custody – labeling the statement an “absurd lie.”
.Previously, the Turkish government had remained cautious about their statements regarding the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. According to experts, the Muslim world has for the most part, remained silent on the Uighur issue, perhaps, experts said, to avoid Chinese diplomatic or economic retaliation.
Observers and political experts pointed out that Turkey has made greater efforts in the last two years to forge closer ties with China that began in 2017. It turned out that 2018 was a pivotal year for both countries in terms of official visits and a rise in Chinese tourists visiting Turkey.
Clearly, both Turkey and China have a lot riding on maintaining a smooth relationship despite the current criticism aimed at China regarding the plight of the Uighurs.
Turkish Ambassador, Abdulkadir Emin Onen said over 1,000 bilateral talks were held last year between Turkish and Chinese officials. He added that 2018 saw a record number of Chinese tourists in Turkey and he told the press that he hopes that 2019 will be “a year that we will break these records, see more Chinese [tourists] in Turkey and sign more bilateral agreements.”
The ambassador stated that the trade volume between Turkey and China has now reached 30 billion USD with an aim to increase it to 50 billion.
Onen emphasized that a major goal for 2019 is for China to pay a state visit to Turkey.
Regardless, of all these positive developments, Turkey has been encouraged by human rights groups and the Uighur community in the U.S. to speak out against what has been termed “systematic indoctrination” and “forced assimilation” of the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
The Turkish government released a statement on February 9, calling out China on its mass detentions of the Turkic-speaking Uighurs and announcing that a poet died in custody while serving an eight-year Chinese prison sentence as punishment for “one of his songs.”
On Sunday, China released a video of a man, purported to be Heyit, stating that he was alive and well.
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, urged Turkey to “correct their mistakes” – labeling the Turkish statement as “vile” and stated that Ankara was making “false accusations.”
Press reports indicate that, so far, there is no way to verify the video’s authenticity or when it may have been made. The Turkish foreign ministry statement said Uighurs were being “subjected to torture and political brainwashing in concentration camps and prisons.”
The release of the video is being widely disputed by the international community and activists as a smokescreen to gloss over China’s human rights violations not only against the Uighurs, but against other Muslim sects as well.
For China’s part, the Chinese government insists that it preserves the religion, culture and traditions of all its ethnic groups while maintaining that their western province in Xinjiang is facing what the Chinese government terms as “outside forces” who are “fomenting violence” and encouraging “uprisings.”
Former detainees have come forward to denounce China’s denials, stating that they were forced to renounce allegiance to their religion, culture and ethnic traditions while being coerced to pledge allegiance to the Communist Party.
According to Turkish government spokesperson Hami Aksoy, the plight of the Uighur people has been going on for years. Aksoy called it a “shame on humanity,” and stressed that China needs to release those being held in detention.
The United Nations stated the time has come to stop turning a blind eye to the oppression and subjugation of ethnic Turkic and Muslim minorities in China’s far western province.
A UN human rights panel challenged China almost six months ago on “credible reports” that at least 3 million ethnic Uighurs had been subjected to detention or forced re-education. The region of Xinjiang is alleged to be a “massive internment camp.”
At the same time, Chinese officials hit back at the UN and human rights activists, in effect, letting them know in no uncertain terms, that their critical stance was unwelcome.
Also, at that time, the newly appointed UN human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, had proposed international monitors be allowed into Xinjiang with the Chinese response being understated outrage – in effect, rejecting Bachelet’s proposal as being under the influence of “one-sided information.”
Turkey does not have the luxury of remaining silent on the Uighur issue moving forward.
A case in point, large protests took place in front of the Turkish Consulate as well as the Chinese mission in New York City, last Saturday, to demonstrate solidarity with the Uighur people and to call attention to the world, to take a more outspoken stance.
Turkey called on the international community and the UN chief Antonio Guterres, “to take effective measures to bring to an end this human tragedy in Xinjiang,” according to a press statement. The Xinjiang region is home to at least 11 million Uighur people who comprise at least 45 percent of the population in that area.
New York City’s Uighur community voiced their satisfaction with the Turkish government’s response, at a time when Turkey had received backlash for remaining on the sidelines, in the face of increasing threats to the Uighur and other Muslim minorities.
Clearly, Turkey is being called upon to lead the way in the midst of this increasingly precarious situation, which as the international community has pointed out, has escalated to the point of no return.
According to press reports, current Chinese leader Xi Jinping is responsible for having stepped up escalation against the Uighurs and other Muslim groups in the region since he took office. Claims of surveillance, spying, torture and other acts have been reported by activists and former detainees.
Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has insisted on the Chinese government’s transparency on this issue. The UN is being urged by international rights groups to spearhead a thorough investigation into the widespread allegations of abuse against the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities.
The onus is now on the Turkish side to prove that they are not turning a blind eye to an escalation that could quickly implode and perhaps become a point of contention between China and Turkey.
U.S. officials have already approached the Trump administration regarding the plight of the Uighurs as two prominent American congressmen already presented a petition in Washington, regarding the matter.
Due to the delicate nature of this international conundrum, all parties would be wise to tread cautiously in order to create a path for constructive dialogue and negotiation to ensure the Uighur people’s rights and to investigate any alleged human rights violations.
According to credible reports, up to one million Uighurs and other Muslim minorities are being directly affected.
In the wake of forging closer ties to China, Turkey must remain vigilant in its stance that human rights for all people in China be the rule, not the exception.
As an Uighur academic and activist, Tahir Imin recently told the New York Times, he hopes that the Turkish government takes the lead and forges a path for other nations to take a stance against the oppression of the Uighurs in China.
Imin emphasized that the American Uighur community were happy to finally see the Turkish government criticize the Chinese government and says he hopes this “leads to a solution in the future.”.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, Hua, on a more conciliatory note, reminded Turkey that both sides should do their best to foster “mutual trust and cooperation.”