The Ghulja Massacre 20 Years On: Uyghurs Still Facing Unprecedented Levels of Repression
The World Uyghur Congress commemorates the 20th anniversary of the Ghulja Massacre in which hundreds of peaceful Uyghur protesters were killed by Chinese state security forces. The date remains a potent reminder of the continued and unrelenting power of the state to suppress all forms of dissent across the country and in East Turkestan in particular. In each subsequent year after these events, Chinese authorities have continued to devise new oppressive strategies in a drive towards near-total assimilation through sheer force.
On 5 February 1997, thousands of Uyghurs gathered for a peaceful demonstration in the Ili prefecture city of Ghulja in East Turkestan in response to continued Chinese aggression and the prohibition of Uyghur social organizations, known as Mäshräp, from gathering for cultural events. The protests were immediately quashed by Chinese security forces leaving at least 100 dead and many more injured. Nearly 4000 would be arrested and of those, 200 would subsequently face the death penalty.
In the years following the incidents, the Chinese government chose to disregard legitimate grievances widely voiced by the Uyghur community, rather than developing a response that would take the rights of millions seriously. In the aftermath, peaceful protests were all but snuffed out as Uyghurs became increasingly intimidated by such a use of force – a clear intention of the state.
China continues to exercise harsh controls over the Uyghur population that often results in the extrajudicial killing of civilians and the arbitrary arrest of thousands each year. In November 2015, it was reported that during a counter-terror operation in the region that left 28 dead, among them were eleven women and children. The ostensible campaign to root out terrorism builds on previous efforts by the state to legitimise the broad use of force against the entire population.
What we continue to witness is an outright disregard for human life in all of these instances. Police and security forces have grown accustom to dealing with any kind of conflict strictly with force, deadly if necessary. As a perverse consequence, the use of these measures has undoubtedly been institutionalized, especially considering China’s reluctance to transparently investigate incidents that result in casualties. The incidents will continue to mount if no effective regulatory mechanism is put in place.
The lack of transparency and credible reporting from East Turkestan remains a significant problem as journalists are regularly jailed or removed from the country. Not only does it obscure and misconstrue incidents for the international community and the Uyghur people, but it clouds our understanding of the true nature of the repression of the Uyghur people and as a result, inhibits our ability to solve the problem.