World Uyghur Congress and other Uyghur Organizations Commemorate Baren Uprising

World Uyghur Congress, 6 April 2016

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Munich, Germany  On the 26th anniversary of the Baren Uprising, Uyghur organizations in Turkey, Germany, and in a number of other European countries met to commemorate the events and to speak about current challenges to human rights for the Uyghur community. The meetings allowed for productive dialogue about the situation in East Turkestan and for representatives and members of the community to come together to remember those that were killed during one of the most brutal uses of force against civilians to date.

The initial uprising took place in Akto County, Kizilsu Kirghiz Prefecture, from April 5-10, 1990, and began a pattern of harsh state repression against Uyghur protestors throughout the 1990s. The initial uprising came as a result of the continued influx of Chinese residents into East Turkestan as well as its knock-on effects, including an escalation in discriminatory policies and cultural restrictions on the Uyghur people.

A group of around 200 men marched to the local government office in Akto County on April 5th to demand for greater representation and to put a stop to the significant dilution of their population in favour of Chinese migrants. By the end of April 6th, over 18,000 Chinese troops had been reportedly dispatched to the region to suppress the demonstrations. The population of Baren at the time was a mere 19,000. By only April 10th, the demonstrations had been forcibly dispersed at the cost of countless Uyghur lives in the process.

Uyghur sources put the death toll at upwards of 3000 over the five days, despite Chinese claims that only 107 were killed. Chinese sources quickly framed the conflict as a “well planned, well organized, and premeditated act of ethnic separatists hidden in the region”, though no such characterization could be corroborated by independent sources in the 30 years following the incident.

These early demonstrations in the early 90s would prove the catalyst for harsh Chinese “strike hard” campaigns throughout the decade, as a means of force to root out dissent. Despite these campaigns proving unsuccessful in both quelling dissent and easing tensions between Uyghurs and Chinese, they would subsequently become a staple in the Chinese arsenal until today. The most recent “strike hard” campaign was initiated back in May, 2014, with noticeable increases in casualties as a result of dissent.

Chinese migration to the region had created a severe imbalance in both representation in government (Uyghurs having virtually none) and the erosion of Uyghur culture and language. Mandarin was fast becoming the ubiquitous language in major cities with the government pressing for Mandarin-only schools and employment opportunities for those with no Mandarin language skills quickly depleting. Scholars have argued that Uyghur political representation is integral to the consideration of Uyghur interests, and that restrictive legislation is actually counterproductive to Chinese interests in the region.

The Baren Uprising must be recognized as a watershed moment in what it represents in relation to the relationship between the Uyghur population and the Chinese government. Peaceful demonstrations attempted to highlight some of the most persistent problems that Uyghurs faced at the time – problems that persist to this day. Violence during the 1990s in East Turkestan was at an all-time high culminating with the massacre in Ghulja, which left over 100 dead and upwards of 200 who faced the death penalty.

Many of the issues that initially triggered the uprising persist even today – many of which have grown substantially worse, including religious freedom and freedom of expression, assembly and association, to name but a few. Consistent campaigns of violence, fear and intimidation have unfortunately been hallmarks over the last decade with regards to overwhelmingly peaceful Uyghurs.

These five days in April not only serve as a horrific memory, but as a symbol of the ongoing repressive policies exercised by the Chinese government in East Turkestan.