SEATTLE — The Uyghur Muslims are a minority group with ethnic Turkic ancestry, residing in the autonomous 22-million strong region of Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan) in China. Since China gained independence in the year 1949, the Uyghur Muslims have been persecuted by other majority groups in the region. The Han migrant influx has also caused insurmountable pressure on the region in recent years. The lack of social security nets have also aggravated poverty for this group over the years.
The estimated population of Uyghur Muslims globally is 35 million, and a majority of the population continues to live in the Xinjiang region of China.
The Need for an International Focus
Unfortunately, the international focus towards the problem remains marginal. Surprisingly, the numbers of oppressed Uyghur Muslims exceed that of many other equally repressed minority groups globally. In the year 2013, the human rights organization Amnesty International condemned the racial exclusion of the Uyghur Muslims — an allegation that China constantly denies.
Recently, the defense of the Uyghur Muslims, however, has surpassed peaceful protests and surged into violence and demonstrations against Chinese security forces and other entities. The Chinese government is also alarmed by the rise in the activity of Uyghur militia groups in the region as well. Many of them are well trained and have links with other extremist groups, and the Chinese government is wary of the propagation of such groups’ ‘fundamentalist’ ideologies.
Health and Poverty
On the health front, there was an increase in the cases of HIV/AIDS in the region in 2015. Nearly 80 percent of the 35,200 individuals who contracted the infections that year were Uighur Muslims.
The Chinese Government has also been known to exploit and isolate Uyghur Muslim communities from the rest of the region in what is commonly known by a term as ‘state-led discrimination.’ As a result, the Uyghur Muslims are dissatisfied by the way they have been treated for years.
Beginning in the early 1990s, the clashes between separatists such as the East Turkistan Independence Movement (ETIM) and the Han immigrants backed by the Chinese government has now reached a peak. The death toll is in the hundreds, and many individuals face the threat of mass displacement.
The Uyghur Muslims are not allowed to enjoy many of the rights that come with their supposed autonomy. Most of them are not allowed to leave the country, and the number who are allowed to so as to embark on the annual Hajj pilgrimage are often severely curtailed. Furthermore, a majority aren’t given the chance to practice many of the customary basic rituals of Islam or speak their native languages.
Extreme poverty in the region also remains extremely high as many in the region rely predominantly on the agricultural sector for employment. The economic output of the Uygur Muslims remains low as farmers often need to sell their produce below market prices. There is limited land given by the government to grow crops, which makes it difficult for the Uyghur Muslims to practice farming and own property.
Flight to Freedom
Moreover, over the years, over 300,000 Uyghur Muslims have fled to Turkey where the government continues to welcome them with open arms. Despite the strain in current diplomatic ties between China and Turkey, the Turkish foreign ministry continues to sport a positive outlook towards the situation. The Uyghur Muslims also continue to rely on Turkey for social and economic support.
Given the complexity of the problem, the sources and stakeholders of the problem must be clearly understood. Before the major cultural clashes can be addressed, the continued military presence in the region needs to come to an end so there is a cessation in hostilities between the parties. Also, regionally bolstering the capacities of essential industries and sectors of the economy could prove efficacious in improving the overall development of Xingjian — a move that may yield positive impacts on the Uyghur Muslims as well.
Overall, alleviating large-scale issues like poverty and segregation facing the Uighur Muslims in China will be an effective foundation to address the conflicts associated with the ethnic group worldwide.
– Shivani Ekkanath