30 April 2009
A couple of months ago I read about the Uyghurs for the first time. Their story made such an impression on me, that when I wanted to tell a friend about it a week or so later, I could hardly remember any of the details.
Such is the tragedy of the Uyghurs and their struggle for freedom.
The Uyghurs are a central Asian people living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Or at least that's what China is calling it. Sometimes they also like to call it just Xinjiang, meaning New Frontier. Now I'm thinking Indians. Adventurous pioneers, wagon circles, bacon & beans, Remmington rifles. And the cavalry of course, General Custer's Last Stand, the trumpet charge. Millions of dead Indians. Not sure the Chinese know this though.
The story of the Uyghurs is very similar to that of the Tibetans, their geographical and politcal neighbor. Both ruled by China, both denied a country of their own, both suffering from oppression.
So why do we hear so little about the Uyghurs and so much about Tibet?
1) the Tibetans have the Dalai Lama. A man so sympathetic even Osama bin Laden has never threatened to kill him. Of course the Chinese would love to kill him if they could get away with it, but they don't count. (and they couldn't)
2) The Tibetans have Buddhism. Equally sympathetic. A religion yes, but filled to the brim with nice, relaxing thoughts and joyful colors. Hardly anybody knows or understands anything about it, but who cares? They have priests dressed in stylish red and yellow, what's there to understand?
3) Richard Gere. One of Hollywood's most famous actors, who knows the Dalai Lama personally and has been fighting for Tibet for years. Richard's heart is very big and I bet there's room for the Uyghurs too, if only he'd heard of them.
4) The name 'Tibet' . This really is every marketing department's wet dream. So short and spicy, just like Che (Guevara) in the famous Korda photograph, with the beard and baret (the one on all the merchandise, making Korda's family lots of money) The image is that walking around in a T-shirt with 'Free Tibet' on it almost makes you a freedom fighter. Or, for those that don't like to walk in t-shirts but do want to be almost freedom fighters, there are coffee cups, paintings, bathtowels etc. Try achieving that with 'Free the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region'. The Uyghur separatists themselves call it Uyghurstan or Eastern Turkestan, but with such a name they'll never get the support of that all powerful demographic: teens looking for a way to look cool.
5) The Tibetans came out of the closet first. We Westerners have only room for a certain amount of suffering, oppression, hunger, endangered species, war and all that. In this case, we already have a region in Central Asia oppressed by China. Sorry, if you snooze you lose.
Then again, nothing ever changed for the Tibetans either...