Recently Senior East Turkistani Leader DOLKUN ISA was in news because of his visa application to attend the World Uyghur Conference at Dharmashala in Bharat, which was denied by the government. Senior Journalist, China Watcher and Chairman, Centre for Himalayan Asia Studies and Engagement “CHASE” VIJAY KRANTI spoke to the leader with existing Interpol Red Corner Notice a few months ago – much before the Dharamsala international conference was announced on his struggle and the issues involved with China.
VK: There is a lot of talk about the Uyghurs. What is the basic problem between the Uyghur people and the Government of China?
DI: The problem can certainly not be described as basic, but the conflict between the Uyghur people and the Chinese began towards more or less the end of the Qing dynasty and during the Republic Period (1912-1949) where a number of Chinese leaders were trying their best to quell the Uyghur rebellion and consolidate as much power and land as possible. The Uyghur people attempted to establish their own State, once in 1933 that lasted a mere 6 months and then again in 1944 which lasted until 1949. These were short-lived and marked the beginning of China’s official approach to East Turkestan. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, China annexed the region and renamed it as the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region” (XUAR). The name is deceptive in that the Uyghur people have not been granted any semblance of autonomy over the region over the past half century. The Uyghurs refer to the region as East Turkestan, something that remains consistent.
VK: How you got involved in the freedom struggle of East Turkestan which China calls as “Xinjiang”?
DI: I got involved in the freedom struggle of East Turkestan since 1980s when I was a students at the Xinjiang university . I was one of the student leaders of the students demonstration in 1988 in Urumchi, the capital of East Turkistan. These demonstrations were against the discrimination policy of Chinese government towards Uyghurs. I was dismissed from the University in the end of September 1988. I was arrested many times later on different occasions. I fled into exile in 1994. Since then I am continuously working for the cause of East Turkestan and fully involved in it.
VK: Why WUC was formed and what are its goals?
DI: The WUC was formed as an umbrella organization of various Uyghur organizations around the world which are functioning in a number of countries. It represents Uyghur interests in and outside East Turkestan. Its principal goals are to promote democracy, human rights and freedom for the Uyghur people through peaceful, nonviolent and democratic means.
VK: What about the conflict between the Chinese and the Uyghurs?
DI: This conflict has arisen over China’s unwillingness to hand over any real power to the Uyghur population which numbers at least 20 million, though many scholars believe it may be much higher. China began incentivising Han migration into the region in the late 1950’s. But last 15 years have seen an intense redoubling of this effort due to which the Uyghur people, who once numbered close to 95 percent, are reduced to mere 45 percent of the population in the region.
Beginning in the 1990’s especially, Uyghurs began to act as targets for the regime and violence soared. Besides job opportunities, restrictions on Muslim Uyghurs and consistent discrimination against in terms of language and culture and police and security forces have piled on as well.
VK: Then how do you express your problems?
DI: The government of China today associates all Uyghurs with international terrorism for the actions of a very small minority. Uyghurs people are not allowed even to peacefully protest or air their legitimate grievances. On the other hand, impunity for police and security forces who commit atrocities on protestors is widespread. State-controlled media reports will label any incident of expression of grievances as an act of “terrorism”. For all these reasons that I”ve mentioned, the Uyghur people have developed a certain animosity towards the Chinese and the root of the conflict lies with the treatment exercised by the Han State against the local population — the Uyghurs. China is interested in the vast reserves of oil, natural gas and coal as well as cotton and other products than the people.
VK: How is PRC government using Han settlers to control the freedom struggle of local Uyghurs in your country?
DI: In order to completely assimilate East Turkestan into China, millions of Chinese are being settled in our country. Before 1949 there were only 300,000 Chinese in East Turkestan. According to the Chinese statistics it is now 8.75 million. They don”t include Chinese Army, paramilitary forces and “temporary” workers in these figures. There is also the “Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps”, known as “Bingtuan” in East Turkestan which is a unique economic and semi-military governmental organization with total Chinese population of more than 2.6 million. Bingtuan has played an important role in crushing the Uyghur freedom movement.
VK: How would you look at the support (or lack of it) from world governments to the Uyghur movement till now?
DI: There has been some support for the Uyghur movement, especially from the West – the US, UK, Canada and great support from Turkey most recently. Turkey made a good push to receive Uyghur refugees that had been stuck in Thailand and were in poor condition, though one major setback remains. We have been unable to gain support from regional states. Bordering countries to the west like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan etc. have not been cooperative in fighting for Uyghur rights because of their close relationship with the Chinese government. The same can be said about states that lie to the south and south east of China including Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia etc.
VK: What about Pakistan and Afghanistan?
DI: Pakistan and Afghanistan have never supported the Uyghur struggle. In particular, Pakistan has cooperated with the Chinese against the Uyghur freedom movement. Until now, many Uyghur refugees and Uyghur students have been sent back to China at the request of Chinese leaders, with some having been given the death sentence following their deportation. Afghanistan deported 10 Uyghur refugees to China in July 2014.
VK: Do you see any scope for a joint front of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Mongolians, Taiwanese, Hong Kong people and various other victim groups inside mainland China who are fighting with the government of PRC for their rights?
DI: To a certain extent, there has been cooperation between the groups, though there is certainly room for improvement on this front. Of course, there are definite differences between the groups, but we believe that more can be done among all these groups to unite against oppression as we all face from the same oppressor.