The Uyghur activist discusses the threat of Islamic terror in Central Asia, China’s dominance of the region, the need for greater global attention to the Uyghur cause and more.
It is late in the evening the day before Dolkun Isa was to leave for his now-aborted trip to India this week and we are seated at a restaurant in Berlin. The man India has been obsessing over all of last week, shakes his head and laughs at the idea of being bumped up on the list of China’s most wanted terrorists. “I’m number three on that list. The first one has died, so I’m actually number two,” he says.
In news headlines, he has been portrayed between the two opposites of hardliner and “terrorist” by critics, and freedom fighter and pro-democracy activist by supporters. In person, he is suave in manner, speaks several languages, laughs easily, and is prone to giving long and rambling answers to every question. “So, you are here in Berlin, sitting with a top terrorist,” he smiles.
Isa has been flooded with emails from India. Through the week he has expressed his disappointment over the incident, which he reiterates now. But the unexpected result of the diplomatic debacle has been the Uyghur cause being introduced to a whole new audience in India. “I’m very happy with the people of India. I got a lot of support from them, a lot of media attention. I got a couple of hundred emails, from students and teenagers. ‘We support your cause, some say you are a hero.’ Some of the students unions invited me to give a speech if I ever visit India,” he said.
We are meeting on the sidelines of the two-day conference on ‘The Rights of Uyghur Refugees’, organised by the World Uyghur Conference (WUC, the organisation of exiled Uyghur groups cofounded by Isa) and Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation (UNPO). Around us in the restaurant are a group of academics, activists and Uyghur exiles from Europe and the US. They mostly speak in the Uyghur language, a blend of Turkic, Persian and Arabic, and many of them are wearing the doppa in different styles and colours (the traditional square-shaped hat has in recent times become a symbol of defiance against the Chinese government, which has tried to regularise how it is worn). The conference was organised to bring attention to the plight of the Uyghur community and to look for possible resolutions to the crisis.
Rebiya Kadeer, the president of the WUC and a prominent Uyghur activist, delivered a spirited closing speech at the conference where she raised the most urgent concerns for the Uyghur: the refugees that were repatriated from Thailand to China last year and those that are still stranded in Thailand under an unfriendly regime allied with the Chinese, and the case of Ilham and Jewher Tohti, who have become the most visible symbols of Chinese repression. Ilham, a Beijing-based academic and writer and one of the most well-known advocates for the Uyghurs, was arrested on his way from China to the US in 2013. His daughter, Jewher, was put on a flight to Chicago and has since been campaigning for the release of her father who has been sentenced to life in prison on charges of separatism. Kadeer stands accused of inciting the 2009 riots at Urumqi by the Chinese leaders, a protest that morphed into one of the bloodiest incidents of civil unrest in China. Like Isa, she is the face of the Uyghur cause in the US and Western Europe, and campaigns tirelessly at human rights conferences around the world.
As was expected, the visa imbroglio became a talking point at the conference. The morning after our meeting, instead of taking the flight to New Delhi as originally scheduled, Isa flew to Stockholm for some meetings.
In conversation with The Wire, he discusses the threat of Islamic terror in Central Asia, China’s dominance of the region and why the Uyghur cause needs the attention of the world.
What are your comments on the incident and about India capitulating to pressure from China?
I was really disappointed with India’s position. It was not the first time that I was trying to go somewhere and the Chinese government tried to stop me. Both India and China have the largest population around the world, and both are economic powers. But India is the largest democratic nation in the world, there is freedom of speech, freedom of movement, assembly rights guaranteed by the Constitution and India also accepts international law. India is one of the few democratic countries in Asia, in my view. So I believe and I suggest, India should have some responsibility to teach some democracy to China. In China, there is persecution, detentions, extra judicial killings and no right to freedom of expression, no religious right, not only for for the Uyghurs but also for the Tibetans. That’s why India should have some responsibility to speak on this issue to China.
Has anyone from the government of India been in touch with you, the Indian ambassador to Germany or any other emissary?
No one has directly contacted me. I was not informed by the government, but I learnt from the media that the home ministry is saying I can apply for the conference visa. I had applied originally for a tourist visa, and I know there is no conference category in the visa. Well, it is a little bit of a game, I know. I don’t like to put India in a difficult situation, because China pressurises all countries.
The pressure that China puts on all countries, like the recent flip flop by the Indian government, how does it affect the cause you are fighting for?
The WUC is seeking self-determination for the Uyghur people, creating democracy in East Turkestan and protecting human rights of the people. We introduce the Uyghur cause to human rights councils, European parliament and European governments. But China continues to block us, even in the UN, and put pressure on the secretariat. They asked them to not issue accreditation to us, but did not succeed.
In 2003, when China issued the terrorist list, there was a lot of pressure on the German government to deport me to China. I was not a German citizen at that time. The German government asked China to share evidence. Then, at the beginning of 2004, the German criminal police sent one delegation to China. It was nonsense. After that I applied for citizenship, and the Chinese government put pressure on the Germans, (saying) you should not give it to a terrorist. In 2006, I got it (citizenship), and it made China very angry.
What are your views on India’s concerns about Pakistan-based terrorism and Masood Azhar?
To be honest, I had never heard of his name. Some people in the media put our names and our pictures together, and it really made me unhappy. We have no connection with militant groups. My struggle is peaceful and for the freedom of Uyghurs. It’s completely non-violent.
I am aware that Pakistan has a lot of terrorist groups based in the country and some Taliban-based groups as well. Pakistan is also a partner of China and they support each other. At the UN conference, China claimed us to be terrorists and Pakistan immediately joined China. It did not know what the topic was, what are the issues. Pakistan is a Muslim country and we are Muslim. Unfortunately, religious persecution is one of the main problems in East Turkestan, but Pakistan never speaks up on the Uyghur issue. They have sent back Uyghur refugees to China. The first time, I think it was in 1999, 13 Uyghur were sent back to China and most of them faced the death sentence after being deported.
In Pakistan also there are a lot of problems with ethnic groups, for example with Baluchis. Baluchis are also a member of Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation, just like we are. They have a lot of problems, they are also persecuted at home.
But my question is specifically on India being targeted by terror outfits in Pakistan.
This I have no idea of because I have to research this, study it a little.
China accuses the Turkestan Islamic Party of propagating terrorism, do you agree with that?
Where is it based? Who are the leaders? Where is the organisation? It is a question mark. We don’t know if this organisation actually exists. We heard from the media in 2002 or 2003, first the Chinese media and then the US.
If it is a terrorist organisation, why would they be out in the open? Are you saying they don’t exist at all?
If such an organisation really exists or not, we don’t know.
What is your theory in that case?
China has a history of creating such organisations in East Turkestan. Just two or three people could be together, drinking tea, talking about some political issues, and some spy listens to them and immediately arrests them, saying yes, you are one organisation. They beat and torture them. We have a lot of examples. Such things have happened a lot since 1949. A big example is in 1969, the Chinese government captured more than 30,000 Uyghurs during the time of the cultural revolution, saying they were a so-called East Turkestan People’s Party. Later, after Mao Zedong died, people were released from prison, with the government saying we actually didn’t know.
There have been incidents of violence within the province, where does it come from?
Actually today there is some violence in East Turkestan. So who is doing it?
Who is doing it?
Look, most of them are some groups or individuals. They do it for revenge, today you are sitting and the police comes to your home, they ask why are you women wearing headscarves sitting at home, why are you fasting? Your daily life is threatened, and your religious and economic rights. If you speak against the police (and say) it is my home, my right, I can grow a beard or wear a headscarf, you are immediately arrested. If such things happen for a long time, and you don’t have the right to apply to some court for justice, then of course one day people want revenge. They attack police officers, or kill someone. Most of the incidents are like that. Not organised, just some groups, voluntarily, individually gather together because they cannot find justice. Most of these things that have happened are with knives. If it really organised, as East Turkestan Islamic Party, they should have another strategy, as such a big organisation. Why would people just use knives?
Would you say the same for the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)?
As far as I know it’s a political party. Today Uzbekistan is under a dictator; the president, Islam Karimov, is a dictator. Today in Uzbekistan, there is also a lot of religious persecution, crackdown on a lot of people. So I heard against him they have some militant group, but I don’t think so, because they are also persecuted.
But they are supposed to be allied with ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Maybe yes, this I don’t know this very well. I have not researched this issue. From around the world, people are joining ISIS. But IMU’s alliance with the ISIS? That I don’t know.
How do you see the role of the Taliban?
Taliban is supported by China, most of the guns they use are made in China. On the one side China speaks against Taliban and on the other, it supports it. The borders are very loose, there is cooperation and financial help from China. Some researchers are also saying this.
Taliban is against the US and the Western alliance. China wants to control this area, Afghanistan, Central Asia, because it doesn’t want US to control it. It says, I am the power in this area, I have to control it. That is why it is playing some dirty games.
Kadeer spoke of how she fears Uyghur youth could be pulled into ISIS and how that must be fought against. Does ISIS present a great threat in Xinjiang?
In 2009, a peaceful demonstration happened in my country, in East Turkestan. It was a big issue at that time. According to official numbers of the China government, 197 people were killed. But we think more than 1,000 people were killed. Already seven years have passed, we still don’t know how many people were killed, how many were injured and how many disappeared. A lot of eyewitnesses from East Turkestan came to Europe, came to Germany, some other places and they reported it. It was just a very normal demonstration, demanding justice. People were even carrying the Chinese flag. Normally Uyghurs don’t carry Chinese flags. But immediately the Chinese judged this as terrorist activities. After the crackdown on the 2009 demonstration, a lot of people escaped from China.
But the Chinese claim that the Uyghur youth are joining ISIS.
Today to travel from one village to another, Uyghurs have to get special permission, even if you have to visit your relatives. Every Uyghur should carry two IDs, one is normal ID and one is a green card. If you do not have the green card, you cannot buy the train ticket, you cannot buy the bus ticket and you cannot book a hotel. How is it possible? Chinese border is not like the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, it’s a tighter border. There are a lot of question marks here. When freedom of movement is so very difficult, how?
What is your explanation for it?
There are several things. First of all, China transfers population to East Turkestan continuously, so that Uyghurs who don’t want that can leave China. Second, after September 11, all Uyghur are terrorists, even my name is on that. China is trying to expose the Uyghurs as terrorists, but no country accepts this, no evidence comes up. Then so many people escape or leave from China, when they leave and some Uyghurs join the ISIS, China uses this to prove Uyghurs are terrorists.
Ilham’s case has become a rallying point for the Uyghur people. Do you see parallels with your own story?
We both have the same fight. He is a professor. He never spoke up against the regime, against the Communist Party, against the law, but he was judged a separatist. We (those who are exiled) are asking for self-determination, but he couldn’t say that inside. We have a lot of rights according to the law, the Constitution. For example, Uyghur language is an official language, but in reality not implemented at all. From 2004, all Uyghur schools have closed, we have the so called bilingual education system, Chinese and Uyghur, but actually it’s Chinese. It is not just against the Chinese Constitution, but also international law.
Do you think the Uyghur crisis has been neglected by the world? And how much can that be attributed to China flexing its muscle?
The answer to that would be yes and no. The Uyghur cause is a very new cause for the world. Actually it’s an old cause, but most of the people know about the Tibetan issue. Ten years back, you didn’t know about Uyghurs, you had no idea who they were, but today you know, it is a big development.
What has changed?
Before the Soviet Union collapse, there was no Uyghurs organisation in any democratic country in the West. The first Uyghur organisation was established in 1991 in Munich. Five or six Uyghur families who were working for an American radio service, Radio Liberty, against the communist bloc came here. They established the East Turkestan Union in Europe. Before that the border was closed, there no opportunity to go abroad. After the collapse, we moved to Europe, end of 1990s and beginning of 2000s, we came and established Uyghur organisations.
China has been trying to suppress our voice, they don’t want the voice to be internationalised, they close the border, who will talk for you. First you have to talk for yourself and then some other people will talk about you. Chinese policy has not changed, their repression of Uyghurs is getting worse after Xi Jinping took power.
How is that?
Take Ilham Tohti’s example. He is a Uyghur. If he was Chinese, he would never get sentenced to life, just warning, or one two years. You know Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo is sentenced to just eleven years. Tibetans and Uyghurs are more or less the same, but Tibetans are little bit better than us, because Dalai Lama is a world known figure and a lot of international lobbies put big pressure on China about Tibet.
After facing persecution in East Turkestan and living as an exile in Germany, how do you see your identity?
It is a serious problem to say what your identity is, in East Turkestan and in exile also, because the Uyghurs are in Germany around one thousand in number, it’s nothing. My daughter and son are the second generation here, they go to German schools, have German friends and speak the language. We want to keep our culture and language, it is very difficult for my generation, but after that, the next generation I don’t know what will happen. Even in East Turkestan, all the Uyghurs schools are closed, forced to use Chinese language, all the history and heritage is destroyed, like Kashgar, which was more than two thousand years old. Today religion is one of your identities, you cannot go to the mosque, you do not have religious freedom, that’s why we have serious problems in preserving our identity.
Who do you see as your inspiration?
I read Mahatma Gandhi’s biography. And also Nelson Mandela. I visited South Africa, went to Robben Island, visited the jail.
What do you think could be the solutions to the crisis?
Our suggestion to the Chinese government is dialogue, like the Tibetans. Of course we have criticism within our community, look at Dalai Lama and his dialogue with China, the result is zero, but we say, we have to talk. But China never listens to us. China says, I have power, I have money, I can do anything I want. Even international pressure is nothing for me. Today in China corruption is high, there is just propaganda, no media, only positive news. Each year couple of million children die of hunger, but nobody reported this. India also has a lot of problems, but free media, you can report it, but China only reported the positive side.
If dialogue is not the way out, what is?
We believe the Communist Party will not exist for long. We have very good dialogue and cooperation with the Chinese democratic movement and dissident groups. Dictators are not forever. China’s Communist Party should be done one day, maybe five years, I don’t know when, we never lose hope, we cannot stop.
You were actively involved in student protests, is there any one incident that shaped you?
When I was a student at Xinjiang University in 1984, when I came to study Physics. The first demonstration happened in 1985, I was an active participant in it, I was just 17 or 18. In university you learn about a lot of different ideas and people. When I was a student leader in 1988, we gathered a couple of thousand Uyghurs students and went to the streets. That time I was house arrested for four months and then I was kicked out of university. For four years I lived in Beijing to escape the police. In East Turkestan, the police followed me all the time.
At home, everyone is a little bit afraid, talking about politics in a dictator country. My father is an agricultural engineer, my family is not political. But because of me, my younger brother stayed in jail for two years. They still live in my home town, Aksu, and they are suffering so much. I haven’t seen them.
Sunaina Kumar is a Delhi-based writer and Medienbotschafter Fellow 2016