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Lost Nation: Uyghur Diaspora

Lost Nation: Stories from the Uyghur (Uighur, ئۇيغۇر, 维吾尔, 維吾爾; Wéiwú'ěr) diaspora. A series of short personal stories from Uyghurs around the world on their experiences of migration from Xinjiang (East Turkistan) China (2006. Running time: 55 minutes)

Introduction: The Uyghur Diaspora

One of China's fifty-five nationalities, Uyghurs are a Turkic-Muslim ethnicity which has been living in East Turkestan for generations. Reoccupied by the Qing Dynasty in the mid-18th century, this region had become a Chinese province named Xinjiang in 1884 and in 1955, after the communist takeover in late 1949, was reorganized as the Xinjiang-Uyghur Autonomous Region. According to latest official statistics Uyghurs now number close to ten million, Xinjiang's largest minority or nearly 50 percent of its population (down from 95 percent in 1949 due to Chinese settlement). Claiming Xinjiang as their historical homeland, Uyghurs have tried to gain independence and set up their own state but failed repeatedly. Considering them a separatist and splittist group, Beijing has used a variety of means – cultural, social, economic, political and military – to crush any sign of restiveness among Uyghurs.

For many years Beijing had regarded Uyghur unrest in China as an internal problem that should and would be settled without external interference. Since the early 1990s, however, Beijing has become aware of the growing international community concern about the Uyghurs persecution in China, a concern kindled and promoted by Uyghur Diaspora organizations all over the world. Most Uyghurs outside China have settled in Central Asia, the majority in Kazakhstan (some 350,000), but also in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan (around 50,000 each). Precise numbers are not available because of the occasional similarity between Uyghurs and other Central Asia nations (primarily Uzbeks) and their gradual assimilation into the local population. Also, having settled in Central Asia already in the 19th century, many Uyghurs have since been intensively Russified. Altogether, the Uyghur Diaspora may number 550-650,000.

Uyghurs migrated from China in waves, usually following deteriorating conditions or, conversely, when the doors were opened. Some left by the mid-1930s after the first – and short-lived – Eastern Turkestan Republic had collapsed, mostly to Turkey and to Saudi Arabia. Several hundred Uyghurs, among them Isa Yusuf Alptekin and Mehmet Emin Bughra, former leaders of the (second) Eastern Turkestan Republic, fled China in late 1949, following the communists' seizure of Xinjiang. They first settled in India and then moved to Turkey where they headed the Uyghur Diaspora organizations with Ankara's support. Driven by the hardships related to the Great Leap Forward, in 1962 over 60,000 – some of them Uyghurs – fled China to the Soviet Union (Kazakhstan). Post-Mao China's reforms and Open Door Policy have enabled more Uyghurs to leave Xinjiang and, since the 1980s, altogether few thousands of them have settled all over the world, some with the help of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Uyghur Diaspora communities have formed their own associations, occasionally more than one, aimed at preserving Uyghur collective identity (i.e. culture and language), as well as sustaining and promoting shared national aspirations and, ultimately – Eastern Turkestan independence. In trying to overcome the fragmentation and disagreements that characterized these associations, attempts have been made to set up international Uyghur umbrella organizations, such as the Eastern Turkestan National Congress, set up in Turkey in 1992 and the East Turkestan Government-in-Exile, formed in autumn 2004 in Washington. Most of these attempts, however, failed. One that has a chance to survive is the World Uyghur Congress, inaugurated in April 2004 in Munich. Led by its first president Erkin Alptekin, son of Isa Yusuf (its second president, elected in November 2006, is Rebiya Kadeer who had earlier been compelled to leave China), the World Uyghur Congress now represents most Uyghur Diaspora associations and displays a moderate agenda underlining a quest for human right, democracy and self-determination, without mentioning independence.

This policy appears to be more attractive to foreign governments and NGOs which are reluctant to irritate the Chinese Government. In fact, it has been under Chinese threats and pressure that Ankara was forced to officially adopt a more hostile attitude toward Uyghur expatriates. Consequently, the Uyghur Diaspora headquarters had to dislocate to Western Europe and North America, far away from Beijing's reach. Beijing's tough reaction reflects its growing concern about the effective activities of Uyghur Diaspora organizations. These include petitions, demonstrations, briefings of parliamentarians and government officials, a sophisticate use of the Internet with some sixty websites, all devoted to the issue of Uyghur persecution, the abuse of human rights in Xinjiang, Beijing's Strike Hard campaigns and its denial of self-determination. While a minority of Uyghur Diaspora organizations and leaders are more militant and consider the use of force against China as the most efficient means to change its policy, the majority of Uyghurs prefer the use of peaceful means. Beijing's repeated attempts to link Uyghurs to international terrorism have been mostly dismissed as sheer unfounded fabrications.

Yitzhak Shichor

The University of Haifa, Israel

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creative commons logo (CC) BY-NC-ND This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
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Producer/Director: S L James


Riza Bekin
(Istanbul) 0.00
Anwar Rahman
(Geneva) 3.38
Enver Tohti
(London) 17.02
Gulamettin Emet
(New York) 22.08
Enver Can
(Munich) 40.26
Rabiya Kadeer
(Washington DC) 45.41

Filmed: August 2006 - January 2007

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Last updated Jun 09, 2011