Written by Aashna Nayyar, a grade 9 student
The Uighurs are a Sunni Muslim community and one of the 55 ethnic minorities which are officially recognised by the Chinese government. Currently, there are about 12,000,000 Uighurs residing in China.
What’s their story?
In the 8th century, the Uighurs established their kingdom along the Orhon river which presently is in North Central Mongolia. When this land was taken over by the Kyrgyz the Uighur’s migrated near the Tian Shan mountains. Later they set up a kingdom in the Turpan Depression which was taken by the Mongols in the 13th century. This area in the Turpan Depression is in present times, more commonly known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
In 1949 Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China and many people from an ethnic Chinese group called Han started settling in the district. By the late 20th century the Han’s made up 2/5th of Xinjiang’s population. The increase in the Han population gave the local Uighurs the feeling that their livelihood was under threat and their jobs will be given to the Han Chinese.
In July 2009, in the district’s capital Urumqi faced a violent riot which ends up taking the life of 200 people and injuring 1700 most of which were Han Chinese. This was not the only attack, in 2014 a few Uighur militants had a bloody encounter using knives at a railway station and killed 31 people. A few weeks later, when the president was visiting, almost 80 people were injured, and one was killed in a railway station in Urumqi due to a suicide bombing. The next month, a bombing in the vegetable market took the lives of 39 people. In retaliation, the government initiated a crackdown on the Uighurs. They set up cameras, various checkpoints and police patrols etc.
Instead of looking at a certain group of people, the government thought of the whole Uighur community as a suspect. Due to this, they introduced something called the re-education camps. People would be sent to these camps if they were thought to show signs of extremism. This has now reached to the point where things such as keeping a beard, fasting during Ramzan, not dressing like the rest of the population but wearing ethnic wear, giving Eid greetings, quitting alcohol or smoking, and not knowing Mandarin can send people into the camps.
What do the Chinese say?
Chinese government officials claim these camps are “vocational educational and training programs” whose main goal is to teach Mandarin, Chinese laws and vocational skills and to stop the spread of extremist ideas to eliminate terrorist activities. But a data leak gives us a peak into the actual conditions of the people in these camps.
It is said that about a million people (mostly Uighurs) have been detained without any trial. In the leaked documents which are being called “The China Cables” it is clear through the instructions that the camps are like a high-security prison and escaping is highly unlikely. A few points in the memo are:
- “Never allow escapes”
- “Increase discipline and punishment of behavioural violations”
- “Promote repentance and confession”
- “Make remedial Mandarin the top priority”
- “Encourage students to truly transform”
- “[Ensure] full video surveillance coverage of dormitories and classroom free of blind spots”
This shows that the life of a person in the camp is fully monitored and controlled by the officials. Furthermore, day to day activities such as what to eat and when to sleep is also controlled and monitored by officials.
Inmates of the camp have also reported torture. An inmate who had a chat with the BBC told them about how they were beaten up and how they could hear other people screaming when they were being tortured. Another inmate spoke about how she saw a fellow inmate die due to lack of medical attention to menstrual bleeding.
Many human rights organisations have spoken up against this injustice and asked China to shut down these camps and answer their queries regarding Uighurs that have disappeared. The European Union has also told China to change its policies regarding this matter. For now, all of us must fight together to bring justice to those who were wronged.
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Cover image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Uyghurprotest_DC_2.jpg