`The General' looks to the world for help--Interview with General Riza Bekin

by Cao Chang-Ching 曹長青
The Taipei Times
October 11th, 1999

Standing just 1.63 meters tall, one could hardly believe this 73-year-old amiable-looking gentleman is a legendary military figure: a first lieutenant in the Turkish artillery in the Korean War, Chief of Staff of the Center Treaty Organization, the head of the UN's mission in Afghanistan, and the organizer of the Xinjiang Independence movement.

His followers call him "General," but his mild and benevolent countenance, framed by white hair and black-rimmed glasses, make him look more like the director of a library or a retired professor.

"Our goal is the independence of East Turkestan," said "General" Riza Bekin, Chairman of the Eastern Turkestan National Center, from his office in Istanbul with a gentle, soft voice, reflecting his organization's policy. "But we advocate the use of non-violent and peaceful means."

Born in Khotan (Hetian, 和田) in East Turkestan (called Xinjiang by the Chinese) in 1926, Bekin fled to India with his parents when he was nine years old. Later they moved to Turkey, to begin his life-long exile. His uncle was a leader in an East Turkestan uprising against Chinese rule, but the revolt was suppressed by the local Chinese warlord.

Bekin was a professional soldier. By the time of his retirement in the late 1970s, he was the Chief of Staff in the Center Treaty Organization, an extension of NATO consisting of the US, Britain, Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan. The organization was disbanded only after Khomeni took power in Iran. He also served as cabinet advisor to the Turkish Prime Minister for nine years after leaving the CTO.

When more than forty overseas East Turkestan exiled groups got together in Ankara in 1998 to form a united East Turkestan resistance organization, it was because of this qualification that Bekin became the only candidate to lead the group.

He is the first person to be elected Chairman of the Eastern Turkestan National Center, a self-styled embryonic form of an East Turkestan government-in-exile, and becomes the top leader of the East Turkestan exiles.

Although the headquarters of East Turkestan's resistance organizations are located in Istanbul, there are only 40, 000 East Turkestan exiles in Turkey. Most exiles are in Kazakhstan -- around 1.5 million, according to an estimate by the Eastern Turkestan National Center.

Many of the groups that advocate the use of force to achieve the goal of independence settled in Kazakhstan, and they do not follow the direction of the Eastern Turkestan National Center.

A veteran of the battlefield and a professional soldier, Bekin loves peace as much as does the newly elected prime minister of Israel, Ehud Barak. He advocates the use of peaceful means, such as dialogue and negotiation, to settle ethnic conflicts. "We believe in the universal value of democracy and human rights," said Bekin, adding: "The world trend is toward self-determination. We don't want to see bloodshed, no matter whether it be Chinese or Turkic."

Nevertheless, the Xinjiang resistance movement may gravitate towards the opposite of Bekin's wish. In 1997, a large-scale demonstration took place in Gulja (Yining, 伊寧), resulting in the arrest of nearly 5,000 Uigurs. Following the mass arrests, there were continuous reports of Chinese troops falling prey to ambushes, attacks on local police stations, hijacks of prisons and bus bombings in Beijing.

According to official Chinese reports, the authorities uncovered two underground dynamite factories and military training bases in Kasgar (Kashi, 喀什), and seized four trucks smuggling weapons to Xinjiang. The confiscated weapons included machine-guns, pistols, remote-controlled explosives, anti-tank grenades and temperature-controlled bombs.

Branded as "Xinjiang's Hamas," the Home of East Turkestan Youth, a radical group that remains committed to achieving the goal of independence through the use of armed force, has some 2,000 members. Some of them have undergone training in using explosive devices in Afghanistan and other Islamic countries.

Some have also served in the Turkish army, while others have gained front-line experience while fighting Kurdish guerillas.

Like it or not, the tendency of using armed rebellion to resist Chinese rule has become more and more favorable among the East Turkestanis, both abroad and inside Xinjiang. Ever since the death of the exiled East Turkestan leader Isa Yusuf Alptekin -- who advocated non-violence and was delineated as the Turkic's Dalai Lama -- nobody has had the authority to prevent militant resistance against Chinese rule in Xinjiang.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, several Turkic countries in Central Asia formerly in the USSR's domain have gained their independence, such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan. With Turkey included, there are now seven Turkic countries in the UN.

Racial awareness has reached an all-time high. There have been five "Turkic World Conferences" and six "Young Turkic World Conferences," which consisted of delegates from 34 countries over the last ten years.

The successes of the Palestinians and the Irish, who use armed force to inch their way toward independence, also boosted the spirit of the East Turkestan activists.

On the other hand, the Tibetans, whose spiritual leader the Dalai Lama has been advocating non-violence for more than 40 years -- and has given in to seek autonomy instead of independence -- received only the cold shoulder from Beijing. This failure also consolidated the Turkestani people's belief that the only language dictators and colonists understand is force.

"I oppose any sort of violence," said Bekin in fluent English. "But I understand the motives behind East Turkestan people's militant actions, because communist China's rule is brutal. In many cases, the resistance is just self-defense."

Located in the bustling business district of Istanbul, the Eastern Turkestan National Center occupies an 11-room compound that is "on loan" to the Turkic exiles by the Turkish government until they can go back their homeland freely.

Having a feeling of homecoming, expatriates often come to the center for meetings, a chat, or just to eat a bowl of noodles.

"Information brought back by the four or five hundred businessmen who travel back and forth from Istanbul to Urumqi indicates the huge amount of Chinese immigrants sent by the Beijing authority have been destroying our culture," said Bekin. "As a nationality, we are at the verge of extinction."

When asked whether non-violent methods would work facing a regime that recognizes only violent revolution, Bekin proffered no direct reply. He only said the communists would not hold onto power forever.

"The 1.2 billion Chinese people will not allow this kind of dictatorship to survive any longer. Even the Communist Party itself is changing now," he said.

Shortly after the unrest in Gulja, the Chinese ambassador to Turkey, Yao Kuangyi (姚匡義), invited Bekin to dinner and suggested he visit today's Xinjiang. However, the ambassador could not guarantee that Bekin would be able to discuss the issue of Xinjiang with the Chinese authorities on his visit, so he declined the invitation.

"We would consider it seriously if Beijing consents to the true autonomy of Xinjiang," Bekin said. "But Beijing must acknowledge our ultimate goal of independence. It is our tradition to speak frankly and to the point. Meaningful result can only come from sincere and truthful negotiations."

Although the cause for independence of East Turkestan has received wide support either openly or tacitly from Turkey and other Turkic countries, Bekin's organization is seeking support outside of Muslim circles, especially from western countries. Bekin is planning a trip to the US this fall to meet with members of Congress.

He mentioned that he would be glad to visit Taiwan if invited. "Taiwan is a country in our eyes. We support every people's pursuit for independence," said Bekin.

He is also interested in President Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) "seven regions theory," which suggests that China would be better off if it disintegrated into seven regions.

Bekin also wants to find a copy of Lee's book "With the People Always in my heart (台灣的主張)," and have it translated into Uighur.

When asked what he would say to leaders on both sides of the Taiwan strait, he responded quickly and without hesitation: "I would tell Jiang Zemin (江澤民) that the brutal rule in Xinjiang must end. East Turkestan is not a part of China, but rather outside of China."

Although he has never met President Lee, Bekin holds a favorable impression of him. "I would extend my greetings to him, and I would also ask his support. Bullied by Beijing in the international arena, I believe he'll understand our suffering."

Like most East Turkestan people, his determination for independence is stronger than ever. On the wall of Bekin's office hang the flags of Turkey and East Turkestan, along with a portrait of Turkey's founding father, Ataturk, who established the Turkish Republic on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire 76 years ago.

Bekin says that the portrait delivers a message that an independent East Turkestan must reemerge on the wreckage of a communist China.

(Cao Chang-ching is a New York-based writer and long-time observer of ethnic liberation movements in China.)


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