HALMURRAT Harri, an Uyghur human rights activist in Finland, feels very strongly for the people in Kashmir. He says that Uyghurs and Kashmiris have shared historic ties and many Muslim freedom fighters during India’s anti-colonial struggle had regularly sought refuge in the Xinjiang region.
“After the Communists came to power in China in 1949, many Uyghurs travelled to Kashmir and Pakistan to seek refuge,” says the Uyghur activist, whose parents had been taken to a concentration camp in Xinjiang in 2016 as part of Beijing’s crackdown on the community in the region. His parents’ detention inspired him to start an advocacy outfit Uyghur Aid.
Harri complains that the Uyghur community feels betrayed by Pakistan, much like the rest of the Islamic countries, most of which have endorsed China’s mass detention and surveillance campaign in Xinjiang, unprecedented in history by many means.
A general practitioner by training who last visited his home in China in 2016 to meet his family, the Finnish passport-holder reveals that Pakistan has even been conceding to China’s regular requests to extradite Pakistani Uyghurs to Xinjiang.
Calling out Pakistan’s “fake support for Kashmiris”, Harri states that it was just premised on Islamabad’s resentment against New Delhi. “The Kashmiris must understand that they are being used as pawns by Pakistan to serve its political interests against India. If Imran Khan were genuinely concerned about defending freedom, then the attacks and persecution of Christians and other minorities in his country would have stopped by now.”
However, he says that India has disappointed people like him with its decision to null Article 370, adding that New Delhi could still “salvage” the situation in the region. “India is a democracy founded on solid constitutional values and I am hopeful about India emerging as protector of such values in the coming years in Asia,” says Harri.
The Uyghur rights’ advocate spoke to Delhi based journalist Dhairya Maheshwari over the telephone. Here’re the edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: India’s decision to modify the constitutional status of Kashmir has attracted some international attention, with China also raising concerns at the United Nations. What are your thoughts on the events in Kashmir?
A: I would still say that the voice of the people who are affected by any decision must be heard. I had never thought that India, one of the great democratic countries in Asia, could commit such a sin. When I saw the news of communications blackout in Kashmir and the military increased its presence in Kashmir, it made me remind of the time I was in Thailand. At the time, Urumqi massacre was happening and I couldn’t contact my family. On a personal level, I would say that what’s happened in Kashmir is unfortunate.
However, the situation in Kashmir is not as bad as in Xinjiang and I really hope that the Indian government could salvage the situation and emerge stronger as a nation from the recent episode. For China to comment on Kashmir is really hypocritical. It should first reveal to the world what it has done for the Kashmiris living in Aksai Chin. Nobody’s heard of them. Nobody knows if they are still alive.
Still, India is a democracy founded on solid constitutional values and I am hopeful about India emerging as protector of democratic values in the coming years in Asia. A major difference between China and India is that India’s got independent institutions that don’t judge you on your faith, whatever the ground realities at the time be. While there have always been tensions between Hindus and Muslims, the affected have the option to approach the courts, which are independent. Muslim or Christian minority in India have the freedom to freely practice their religion or build their institutions of worship. Each community has its representatives in the government and the Parliament.
That’s not the case with China. Land and property belonging to Uyghurs could be confiscated, they could be detained without charges and they don’t have the option to seek legal recourse since the courts are also controlled by the Communist Party.
Q: Pakistan has been a close ally of China. How have governments in Pakistan and other Central Asian countries bordering Xinjiang responded to China’s repressive campaign against Uyghurs, many of them fellow Muslims?
A: The ties between Uyghurs in Xinjiang and countries of central and south Asia are historic. It has been documented that many Muslim freedom fighters during the colonial British period sought refuge in Kashgar, Xinjiang. After the Communists came to power in China in 1949, many Uyghurs travelled to Kashmir and Pakistan to seek refuge. However, Pakistan shamefully turned its back on the Uyghur people once its relationship with China started to blossom.
After the 9/11 attacks as America unleashed its War on Terror in the Af-Pak region, many of these Uyghurs who had been studying at Pakistani madrasas as well as businessmen were seen as terrorists and Pakistan failed to do anything about it or protect their interests. Pakistan of late has been shamelessly exploiting the situation of the Uyghurs, first for the US and now for China.
In fact, inter-marriages between Uyghur women and Pakistani men have been quite common. When some of these Uyghur wives were detained in China as part of Beijing’s crackdown, these Pakistani men went to Beijing to protest, only to be deported to Pakistan. Now, we are hearing from members of the Uyghur community in Pakistan that the current government of Imran Khan is even deporting Uyghurs who have been in Pakistan for years at the request of the Chinese government. We are trying to get a complete list of Uyghurs who Pakistan has deported to China, some of who apparently were Pakistani citizens since they had been in the country for years now.
It is really unfortunate to say that Pakistan is sending its Muslim brothers and sisters to their deaths in a Communist country.
Q: How would you then look at Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan saying that he would “go to any extent” to “defend the freedom of Kashmiris”?
A: The Kashmiris must understand that they are being used as pawns by Pakistan to serve its political interests against India. If Imran Khan were genuinely concerned about defending freedom, then the attacks and persecution of Christians and other minorities in the country would have stopped by now. Pakistan is not concerned about the welfare of fellow Muslims, much like the Muslim world, which has been reflected in their attitude time and again.
Q: Let’s talk about your work a bit. How did you manage to flee China?
A: The Urumqi Massacre of July 2009 is a strong reason why many Uyghurs prefer studying at universities abroad once they have completed their schooling in China. While I was studying my Master’s degree in Thailand when the massacre was unfolding, it was also behind my decision to not go back to China.
I left Xinjiang to study medicine at a university in central China in 2002. I did my postgraduate in medicine from Thailand in 2008. During the time, I had also got a chance to visit the region and explore an employment opportunity at the Urumqi Friendship Hospital. However, the events in Tibet then as well as the 2009 massacre left a deep impact on my psyche, like they did on many other young Uyghurs. That’s when I decided in 2010 to migrate to Finland to work as a general practitioner at an international cooperative. Having a strong liberal democratic tradition, I also knew that I could raise the voice on behalf of Uyghurs and highlight the human rights’ abuses being committed by the Chinese state in the region if I were based out of Finland.
Q: The latest campaign of your outfit, Uyghur Aid, involves helping out members of the Uyghur community who are at the risk of being stateless due to refusal by Beijing to renew their travel documents. How big is the problem?
A: Well, around 40,000 Uyghur students professing Islam as well as Christianity are at the risk of being left stateless because the Chinese embassies are refusing to renew their passports. Beijing wants these Uyghur expats to return to China in order to get their applications processed. The fear, founded in precedence, is that they would be detained and sent to concentration camps if they travel to China. Our organisation is helping bring such cases to limelight so that foreign governments could take a favourable decision on their refugee applications. Clearly, returning to China is not an option for Uyghurs, be it Muslim, Christian or people who don’t profess any religion at all. The Chinese are cracking down hard on all Uyghurs, a majority of who are Muslims.
But to say that Uyghurs are in the firing line of Chinese authorities because many of them practise Islam is only partly true.
Q: How has the reaction from the UN and other members of the West been? The US in 2016 had issued a strong statement against China’s policies. This year, twenty-two countries signed a letter to the UN expressing concern over the detention of a million inhabitants. However, many Muslim-majority countries also endorsed Beijing’s actions as necessary “de-radicalisation” measures to combat terrorism.
A: Well, there have been statements of condemnation from the international community and the United Nations, but the fact remains that we haven’t seen any meaningful actions to back the words. While the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently labelled the situation in Xinjiang as the “greatest stain of the 21st century,” there hasn’t been a single UN monitoring group that has travelled to the region to take stock of the situation. I would say that as economic partners of China, other nations have the right to know as to what’s happening with 11 million Uyghurs who are living in Xinjiang region. The 22 European countries who signed the letter you mentioned are very close economic partners of China and I thank them for taking up the cause.
The international community needs to understand that if China’s policies continue in Xinjiang as they are, it would provide a fertile ground for radicalism which has the potential to affect the overall business environment in Xinjiang and the rest of the country.
However, I would like to add here that the US is condemning the actions of China in Xinjiang not because it is concerned about human rights, but only out of its own narrow political interests. How could one expect the US to take a righteous stand in the backdrop of what they are doing to the Mexican and other Latin Americans in the detention camps at the US-Mexico border. That is a blatant abuse of human rights as well. Nevertheless, America at present, due to its own political interests, remains the greatest supporter of the Uyghur people.
Banner image caption: Halmurrat Harri with his grandmother during his last visit to Xinjiang in 2016. His grandmother passed away the same year after his parents’ were detained by Chinese authorities and sent to a concentration camp.