Uighurs are the oldest Turkic speaking people of Central Asia; they have been mentioned in Chinese records dating back to the 3rd century CE.
In the 8th century, the Uighurs established a kingdom and were overthrown, in what is now known as central Mongolia. The Uighurs settled in an area known as the Celestial Mountains, which forms a boundary between China and Kazakhistan. This region which is known to be one of the most arid in the world is why the Uighurs mainly rely on irrigation agriculture for their livelihood.
Currently, there are about 11 million Uighurs in west China. Xinjiang is China’s biggest far west region and Uighurs make up to almost half of the total population which is about 26 million.
Uighurs, who are mostly Sunni muslims, formed a majority of Xinjiang’s population up until the 1950s, at which point Han (ethic) Chinese people started migrating there. Between 1949 and 2008, the population of Han Chinese in the region grew from 9% to 40%.
In the 1930s and 1940s, the Uighurs of Xinjiang declared independence under the flag of East Turkistan (a future independent state in present-day Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region). Uighurs face much discrimination in major cities and with the influx of Han Chinese their own homeland has been reshaped. China’s increasing efforts to combat militancy, or what it calls militant Islam has not helped the situation. Islamic religious practises in Xinjiang are banned and prominent Uighur activists are often detained. In the name of modernisation, China razed much of the historic Old Town of Kashgar to the ground – which was once considered a monument to Uighur culture.
In July 2009, in Xinjiang, around 200 people were killed in a protest, which the state claims were mostly Han Chinese and 1,700 injured.
In Kunming in 2013, 29 people were slashed and stabbed to death at a train station by knife-wielding assailants. Officials blame separatists from Xinjiang region for the attack.
In Beijing 2013, three Uighurs crashed their vehicle into crowds at Tiananmen Square, killing themselves and two tourists.
In Umurqi 2014, a bomb exploded at a railway station killing three people and injuring 79.
The protest on July 5th began peacefully, as Uighurs gathered to protest against the killing of Uighur workers at the Guangdong toy factory. Information about the protest remain vague and inconclusive. While many put the Uighurs’ at fault, Uighur sources state that violence erupted when police used excessive force.
Following the violent 2009 riots, internet services in the Xinjiang region were disabled. Chinese authorities blocked channels that were providing uncensored information, international phone lines, and text messaging for all but accredited foreign reporters. The Chinese government also used it’s official media agencies and other media sources to portray its singular version of the 2009 protests.
While the practice of “disappearances” and unlawful arrests violates various provisions of Chinese criminal and procedural law, Human Rights Watch reports that at least 43 Uighur men were detained initially, following the protest. And with families refusing to come forward due to fear of retaliation, the numbers could be much higher.
When Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, was brought back under control following the protest, Chinese police and military carried out large-scale sweeps of the region. Neighbourhoods were sectioned off, men separated from families and beaten and questioned. Police examined men for bruises on their bodies, indicating that they might have taken part in the protest, and detained those who had not been at home during the time of the protest. In other cases, young men were taken away by the dozens without cause. Men in their 20s were mostly targeted, although Human Rights Watch reports that boys as young as 14 or 12 were also detained during the raids.
In the aftermath, China released contradictory statements about the number of people detained. In October of 2009, six men were sentenced to death and one to life long imprisonment.
Reports that China was operating a system of camps only meant for Muslims started coming through in 2017. In 2018, a satellite captured an image of what looked like a detention centre outside the small town of Dabancheng, which is an hour’s drive from the provincial capital, Urumqi.
China itself launched a propaganda drive, showing pictures of pristine classrooms and videos of ‘students’ who seem grateful. But there is no information available as to why these courses are being taken and how long they span. Human rights groups report that up to a million Uighurs are detained in such camps.
However, in October of that year, a top official in Xingiang stated that citizens were made to undergo “vocational education”. Officials told BBC reporters who were on ground to investigate the existence of these camps that the centres were established to curb terrorism.
Outside of these camps strict new legal penalties have been introduced to curtail Islamic identity and practice – banning long beards and headscarves, the religious education of children, and even Islamic-sounding names.
Uighurs are also subject to ethnic profiling at pedestrian and ethnic checkpoints. The Uighurs face travel restrictions locally and outside China with many residents having their passports recalled for “safe keeping”. Moreover, Uighur government officials are not allowed to go to mosques or fast during Ramadan.
In September 2018, Pakistan was one of the first muslim countries to express it’s severe disapproval to Beijing over it’s treatment of the Uighurs. Pakistan’s federal minister for religious affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, stated that China’s strict regulations are feeding terrorism, rather than curbing it.
Since then, Pakistan, which is a muslim majority country itself has refused to comment on the issue, with many accrediting it to the fact that China is a great economic ally to Pakistan in times when it is undergoing an economic crisis.
“Some faction of foreign media are trying to sensationalise the matter by spreading false information,” Mohammad Faisal, a spokesman for Pakistan’s ministry of foreign affairs, told reporters when he was questioned about said camps in China in December 2018.
Michelle Bachelet, the high commissioner for human rights, on 6 December 2018, made a request for direct access to China’s Xingiang region amid growing global concern over Chinese treatment of the ethnic minority group.
A Uighur Muslim woman, 29-year-old Mihrigul Tursun, tells the Congressional-Executive Commission on China about the torture she faced in the camps upon her second arrest in 2017
In a latest development, Turkey has called out for China to stop the mass detention of Uighurs as it is a “great embarrassment for humanity.” Due to cultural and vocational ties, many Uighurs who have been able to escape China have found a second home in Turkey.