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Uyghur Protests Widen as Xinjiang Unrest Flares

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New protests have erupted in China’s western Xinjiang region, two days after at least 156 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the country’s worst ethnic violence in decades. On Tuesday, some 200 ethnic Uyghurs, mostly women, took to the streets to protest the mass arrest of more than 1,400 people following Sunday’s clashes. Later, hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province. The two sides blame each other for the outbreak of violence. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: New protests have erupted in China’s western Xinjiang region, two days after at least 156 people were killed and over 1,000 wounded in the country’s worst ethnic violence in decades. On Tuesday, some 200 ethnic Uyghurs, who are a Muslim minority, took to the streets to protest the mass arrest of more than 1,400 people following Sunday’s clashes. The protesters, mostly women and children, were surrounded by riot police armed with rifles and tear gas.

Later, hundreds of ethnic Han Chinese marched through the streets of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, armed with clubs and machetes, smashing shops and stalls belonging to Uyghurs. Security forces fired tear gas to disperse the crowds.

The two sides blame each other for the outbreak of the violence. Officials say 156 people, mostly ethnic Han Chinese, died in Sunday’s violence. Uyghur groups say many more have died, claiming 90 percent of the dead are Uyghurs. The Uyghur demonstrators say they had been demanding justice for two Uyghurs killed last month in a fight with Han Chinese at a toy factory in southeastern China.

Chinese authorities have tried to crack down on dissent since Sunday’s protests, carrying out mass arrests, restricting media access, and cutting off cell phone and internet services.

For more, we’re joined by Nury Turkel, a Uyghur American attorney. He is the co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project and past president of the Uyghur American Association. He joins us from Washington, DC.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Nury Turkel.

NURY TURKEL: Thank you for having me. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Can you explain the background of what took place this weekend?

NURY TURKEL: A couple things were the reasons of Sunday’s — what started as a peaceful demonstration. The first thing is, the Uyghurs, I believe, fed up with the communist Chinese regime, which has been brutally oppressing Uyghurs political, economic and social freedom in the last six decades. And second reason is the mob killing and beating in a factory, toy factory, in southern province of Guangdong, where hundreds of Uyghurs injured and many others killed.

And the Uyghurs in Urumqi, the provincial capital, use internet and modern means of telecommunication to reach out to the government, local government, to demand for justice, demand justice for the injured and killed Uyghurs in Guangdong Province. And the local authorities, regional chairman, regional Communist Party chief, ignored the legitimate demand that the Uyghurs asked. So, those are the two reasons triggered, sparked Sunday’s demonstration.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly who the Uyghurs are, Nury Turkel.

NURY TURKEL: The Uyghurs are the other Tibetans that you never heard of. The Uyghurs are ethnically a Turkic people. They speak a language that is similar to the one spoken in Uzbekistan and all the way to Black Sea region of Turkey or Central Turkey.

The Uyghurs historically have been a very politically active people in the region. They have had their own Uyghur empire throughout history. In modern memory, they had two short-lived Republics, known as East Turkistan Republic. The first one was established in 1933. The second one was established in 1944. The second one was destroyed mainly by Stalin’s aim to collaborate with the Chinese. Five of the most prominent leaders of the Uyghur Republic killed in a mysterious air crash in 1949 in Kazakhstan airspace on their way to negotiate the final status of the East Turkistan with the Chinese. Ever since, Uyghurs fall into the communist Chinese regime. Today, the Uyghurs feel that they live in an open prison.

AMY GOODMAN: Nury, this last weekend, why did this all start? Explain exactly how it was sparked.

NURY TURKEL: The Uyghurs, you know, the special — particularly after 9/11, the Uyghurs have been pressured in all fronts. The Uyghurs literally lost anything that they had, even their native language and their own cultural heritage that they had been proudly adhering to. The economic pressure, social pressure, political pressure made the Uyghurs feel they had been suffocated by the communist regime.

Today in Uyghur society, the Uyghurs don’t have a right to worship. They don’t have a right to a fair employment. They don’t have a right to enjoy their cultural heritage. The women under — women and the children under eighteen years old and even retired government workers are not allowed to participate in any religious activities. The Uyghur language has been banned in higher education system. They imposed Chinese-language-based education system. And despite the economic boom in China, Uyghurs experience the highest unemployment rate, and the Chinese government openly discourages and discriminates — discourages Uyghurs applying for high-paid positions. And also, the job advertisements, if you look at them, openly discourage the Uyghurs to apply for certain type of high-paid jobs in the society.

AMY GOODMAN: And the actual toy factory incident where two Uyghurs were killed, two Uyghur workers, that took place nowhere near where this is taking place now.

NURY TURKEL: Several years ago, Chinese government started this program bringing the Uyghurs into inner Chinese cities. That includes women from countryside, to locate them in factories all around Chinese coastal cities. Today, you can find Uyghur workers in factories, manufacturers, making Nike sneakers, and some toy factories.

This particular one is very large factory located in Guangdong province, where they have roughly around 800 Uyghur workers from southern city of Kashgar. One of the disgruntled Chinese worker post a message claiming that two Uyghur men raped a Chinese woman, which turned out to be false, triggered the mob and the local Han Chinese workers to attack the Uyghur workers at night. And the government reported only two deaths, but based on the Radio Free Asia reporting after the interview of two of the injured Uyghurs, the number is much larger than that.

As we speak today, more than 400 Uyghur workers previously worked for this toy factory have been locked up in an undisclosed location. The claim is the government is protecting their safety. If the government is protecting their safety, they should be allowed to be returned home to Kashgar. The government obviously didn’t allow to do that — allow them to do that.

And also, the local Guangdong provincial government failed to exercise its obligation to investigate the criminal act. This Radio Free Asia report also indicates that the security guards for that manufacturer allowed the outside mobs to come in with clubs and lead tubes to beat up the Uyghur workers, including women. So, this is unacceptable to any standard. The Uyghurs in Urumqi could not accept this brutal act against workers, Uyghur workers who were from the countryside of the Uyghur region, who just simply wanted to earn some money and go back.

And another displeasure that the Uyghurs express is, back in 1949, the Han Chinese population was only three percent, but now reached over 45 percent. The Han Chinese still keep coming. They can work. They can get all types of loans. They can get all types of government high-paid positions, whereas poor Uyghurs cannot even work and peacefully go on with their lives in a manufacture, in minimum-paid jobs in Guangdong province. This created a natural resentment, not only to the Uyghurs inside China; the worldwide Uyghur community is outraged, where several hundred of Uyghurs tried to make a living in a factory, whereas millions of millions of Chinese still keep coming and taking over and making the Uyghurs second-class citizens in their own land.

AMY GOODMAN: Nury Turkel, I think the way most people know about Uyghurs in the United States, of course, is Guantanamo, the Uyghur prisoners there. And as the butt of jokes. Two weeks ago, Bermuda and the Pacific island nation of Palau said they were going to be accepting a group of Uyghur prisoners who had been held at Guantanamo for seven years, even though US officials admitted they were wrongly detained. The Uyghurs could not be returned to China, out of fear they would be imprisoned and tortured. So at the recent Radio TV Correspondents’ Dinner, President Obama joked about the plight of the Uyghurs.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Nick at Nite has a new take on an old classic: Leave It to Uyghurs. I thought that was pretty good.

AMY GOODMAN: Obama also joked about the refusal of other countries to accept prisoners held at Guantanamo.

    PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As I have traveled to all these countries, I saw firsthand how much people truly have in common with one another, because no matter where I went there is one thing I heard over and over again from every world leader: “No thanks, but have you considered Palau?”

AMY GOODMAN: Nury Turkel, these prisoners from Guantanamo, the Uyghur prisoners, and your response to President Obama?

NURY TURKEL: President Obama has not speak up on behalf of the Uyghurs. In order to understand the Guantanamo Uyghur situation, we have to look at the overall human rights condition in East Turkistan region, because you will not be able to understand why these Uyghurs left China and end up being in Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan. Without knowing the Chinese bullying all around the world, you will not be able to understand why the Uyghurs cannot be resettled in other countries. So, these are all connected.

Some of these Uyghurs in Guantanamo, or have been to Guantanamo, were participants of 1997 demonstration, which is very similar to what we have been witnessing in Urumqi today. For example, one of the five Uyghurs released into Albania was not only the participant, one the leaders, of the 1997 Gulja demonstration. He is not only punished by being a participant, his entire family, his brother-in-law, locked up, and his brother-in-law died in prison. So the events — the events that is taking place in Chinese-controlled East Turkistan region has a direct relationship to the Uyghurs currently being in prison in Guantanamo.

And I am very surprised and disappointed, like many other Uyghur ex-pats and Uyghur Americans here, that our government is not speaking up. It’s been two days. And I can’t imagine that my government will be sitting and watching the events falling like this, if it is other things happen in China. I hate to use this example, but when the Tibetans took to the streets last March, the international community be outraged. But this demonstration turned into a riot in Urumqi is much larger than what we have seen in Lhasa, and our government has been largely quiet. Yesterday, the State Department expressed concern, and Robert Gibbs, the spokesperson for President Obama, asked all sides to restrain. You know, that is a classic response, but we need more than that. The United States can do a bit better job. The Obama administration needs to deliver some of this hope to the Uyghurs, as well, as it did to the Americans and the rest of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Nury Turkel, I want to thank you for being with us, Uyghur American attorney, co-founder of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, past president of the Uyghur American Association, speaking to us from Washington, DC.

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