Brussels: 2,000 Uyghurs March for Freedom of the in Large-Scale Demonstration

On 27 April 2018, the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) and its Member organization the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) organized a protest march in Brussels, Belgium to demand that China release one million Uyghurs having been arbitrarily arrested and currently being detained within Chinese ‘re-education camps’. The participants also demanded that China stop the destruction of the Uyghur’s cultural, religious and linguistic identity. This march brought together Uyghurs from many different diaspora groups from around the world and it is estimated that there were around 2,000 participants.

The march left from Meeûs Square, not far from the European Parliament, and led the demonstrators to Schuman square, where one of the European Commission’s buildings and the European External Action Service are situated. Protestors included Uyghur individuals and families who chanted slogans calling upon the European Union (EU) to acknowledge the continuous use of “re-education” camps for nearly one million Uyghurs in East Turkestan.

East Turkestan is the name used by Uyghur communities for the Xinjiang region of China.

The demonstration also called upon the EU to send an official envoy to investigate the situation in Xinjiang region and the human right violations committed by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs.

Why is there tension between China and the Uyghurs?

The Xinjiang autonomous region in China’s far west has had a long history of discord between the authorities and the indigenous ethnic Uyghurs population.

The largest of China’s administrative regions, Xinjiang borders eight countries – Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India – and until recently its population was mostly Uighur.

Most Uighurs are Muslim and Islam is an important part of their life and identity. Their language is related to Turkish, and they regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations.

The region’s economy has largely revolved around agriculture and trade, with towns such as Kashgar thriving as hubs along the famous Silk Road.

But development has brought new residents. In the 2000 census, Han Chinese made up 40% of the population, as well as large numbers of troops stationed in the region and unknown numbers of unregistered migrants.

Has Xinjiang always been part of China?

The region has had intermittent autonomy and occasional independence, but what is now known as Xinjiang came under Chinese rule in the 18th Century.

An East Turkestan state was briefly declared in 1949, but independence was short-lived – later that year Xinjiang officially became part of Communist China.

In the 1990s, open support for separatist groups increased after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent Muslim states in Central Asia.
However, Beijing suppressed demonstrations and activists went underground.

What is at the heart of the unrest?

While the situation is complex, many say that ethnic tensions caused by economic and cultural factors are the root cause of the recent violence.

Major development projects have brought prosperity to Xinjiang’s big cities, attracting young and technically qualified Han Chinese from eastern provinces.

The Han Chinese are said to be given the best jobs and the majority do well economically, something that has fuelled resentment among Uighurs.

Activists say Uighur commercial and cultural activities have been gradually curtailed by the Chinese state. There are complaints of severe restrictions on Islam, with fewer mosques and strict control over religious schools.

Rights group Amnesty International, in a report published in 2013, said authorities criminalized “what they labeled ‘illegal religious’ and ‘separatist’ activities” and clamped down on “peaceful expressions of cultural identity”.

In July 2014, some Xinjiang government departments banned Muslim civil servants from fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. It was not the first time China had restricted fasting in Xinjiang, but it followed a slew of attacks on the public attributed to Uighur extremists, prompting concerns the ban would increase tensions.

Sources: World Uyghur Congress, BBC, Social Media 

Image Courtesy: Mihriban Memet

The Kootneeti Team - Central Asian Monitor

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