Not the Torch of Liberty

By Rebiya Kadeer
Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The world has watched in horror recently as Tibetan monks, nuns and laypeople engaged in peaceful demonstrations have been met with brutality by the Chinese People's Armed Police. Tibet's descent into chaos and violence is heartbreaking. As has been made clear by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has dedicated his life to peacefully promoting the Tibetan people's legitimate aspirations for cultural autonomy and survival, lasting peace and meaningful change must be achieved through nonviolent means.

In watching recent coverage of the demonstrations in Tibet and their bloody aftermath, I have been reminded of a turning point in my own life, the moment I decided I had no choice but to speak out against the Chinese government's policy of cultural destruction and its human rights abuses. It was a decision that led to six years in a Chinese prison and then to exile in the United States. Two of my sons are serving lengthy prison sentences in East Turkestan in retaliation for my human rights advocacy.

In February 1997, thousands of Uighurs demanding equality, religious freedom and an end to repression by the government peacefully protested in the Ghulja region of East Turkestan, an area designated the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region by the Chinese government. Armed paramilitary police confronted the unarmed demonstrators and bystanders, killing dozens on the spot, including women and young children. In the aftermath of the protest, thousands of Uighurs were detained on suspicion of participating in the demonstration. Tragically, hundreds of Uighurs were executed.

Just as I grieved with and for the families of the Uighurs killed in the Ghulja massacre, I grieve for the families of peaceful Tibetan demonstrators who have been killed or detained by Chinese police, perhaps never to be seen again. I have seen firsthand the suffering of parents who have lost their sons or daughters to an executioner's bullet or a dark prison cell.

Because of our shared experience under the Chinese regime, Uighurs stand in solidarity with the Tibetan people and support their legitimate aspirations for genuine autonomy. The Chinese government's fierce repression of religious expression, its intolerance for any expression of discontent, its discriminatory economic policies and its support for the movement of migrants have linked Tibet and East Turkestan and have led to the tremendous social tensions in both regions. To Beijing, any Tibetan or Uighur who is unhappy with China's harsh rule is a "separatist." Uighurs are also labeled "terrorists."

With the media focused on the military crackdown in Tibet, few noticed that the Chinese government imposed a curfew in cities in southern East Turkestan. Police patrolled streets with German shepherds and broke up small groups of Uighurs. Like the Tibetan people, Uighurs have suffered for decades under a regime that seeks to eliminate a unique culture to placate paranoid leaders in Beijing. Our religion, a moderate form of Sunni Islam vital to Uighur ethnic identity, has been fiercely repressed. The Uighur language is disappearing from East Turkestan's schools. Hundreds of thousands of government-sponsored Han Chinese migrants are brought to East Turkestan, while locals struggle with unemployment and poverty. Meanwhile, a Chinese government program transfers young Uighur women out of East Turkestan to urban areas of eastern China.

The Olympic torch arrived in Beijing yesterday, and at the end of June it will be carried through Tibet, to the top of Mount Everest and through the streets of Lhasa. From there the flame will be carried to the cities of East Turkestan, including Kashgar, a center of traditional Uighur culture, and Urumqi, the regional capital. China calls the torch relay a "journey of harmony," hoping the unifying spirit of the Olympics will disguise the reality of its brutal rule.

But true harmony can never be achieved as long as the Communist Party enforces policies of cultural assimilation and political persecution in Tibet and East Turkestan. If China wishes to become a responsible member of the international community, its government must engage in a meaningful dialogue that addresses the sources of discontent in Tibet and East Turkestane.

The writer is president of the Uyghur American Association and the World Uyghur Congress.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company