By Cao Chang-Ching 曹长青
The Taipei Times
October 12th, 1999
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, six Turkic-speaking countries in central Asia gained their independence. With a population of around 30 million worldwide, seven Turkic countries (including Turkey) have joined the UN so far. These changes have further stimulated the Xingjiang Uighur people's awareness for independence.
Xinjiang's distinctive history provides a foundation for the East Turkestan people's pursuit of independence.
"We are not seeking independence, but rather revival of our country," said Abdulhekim, the Executive Chairman of the East Turkestan National Center. "We have always been an independent country historically, it is merely occupied by the Chinese now." "We Turks and the Uighur have the same ethnic ancestry. We did not delineate this ourselves, but Allah did; it is His will. There are two places in the world where the Turkic people still have no freedom. One is northern Iran, the other is East Turkestan. We have a responsibility to help. "
Turan Yazgan, a professor at Istanbul University and chairman of the Turkic World Research Foundation
Despite the Chinese government's denial of this kind of historical viewpoint, accounts in a book recorded and edited by the Chinese, The Tangshu (唐书), closely correspond to Abdulhekim's claim.
Like that of China, Xinjiang has a history of several thousand years of rise and fall. The Turkestan empire thrived during the epoch of China's South and North dynasties. Later on, following a victory over the Turkestan empire, the Uighur people established the Uighur kingdom, which was referred to in the Tangshu as the Nine-kinfolk Uighur Kingdom, meaning that the empire was formed by nine Uighur tribes.
It was said that the Uighur army once helped the Chinese emperor Tang suppress the rebellion of An Lu-shan and Shih Tzu-ming (安史之乱), which the East Turkestan people remain proud of, and use as proof that Xinjiang was not only an independent country, but actually helped China.
Nonetheless, after a long period of continuous wars, China's Ching Dynasty army, led by General Tso Chung-tang (左宗棠), conquered the Uighurs. In 1844, some 40 years after the Opium War, Ching rulers formally declared the occupied western region a province, naming it "Xinjiang," meaning "newly conquered territory."
However, the people of Xinjiang never stopped revolting against Chinese rule. In 1937, the Uighurs successfully carried out an uprising in southern Xinjiang and establishing the "Islamic Republic." But it was quickly suppressed by the local Chinese warlord Sheng Shih-tsai (盛世才), who later became Minister of Agriculture in Chiang Kai-shek's (蒋介石) government.
The unyielding Uighur people staged another rebellion in northern Xinjiang in 1944, this time establishing the People's Republic of East Turkestan.
"Our army recovered all the northern territories of Xinjiang except Urumqi," said Berat Haci, 89, who had participated in the negotiations with the communist Chinese general Wang Zhen (王震) who led an invasion of Xingjiang at the end of the 1940s.
"Wang Zhen said Xinjiang was an independent country, but that we must work together with them then in order to defeat the KMT," Haci said during an interview in Istanbul. "In the future, they would allow us to have either autonomy or independence. He said, `Lenin advocated self-government' of all nations with a population of over one million. We are communists and we must follow Lenin's instructions."
Believing such a promise, Turkestan troops consented to allow the Chinese communist army to enter Xinjiang peacefully. Soon after, in the mid-1950s, China established the so-called Xinjiang Autonomous Region and then began to suppress dissent among Uighur people there.
"There were 10 districts in Xinjiang at that time, and they arrested 80,000 people in eight of the 10 districts and 30,000 in the other two," recalled Haci. The communists' racial oppression smashed the Uighur people's dream of independence, he said.
"The assassination of the five top leaders of the People's Republic of East Turkestan prompted the fall of the Republic," said Erkin Ekrem, 35, a history lecturer at Hacettepe University in Ankara, who moved there from Xingjiang nine years ago.
Erkin is one of the foremost scholars on this period of East Turkestan's history. He described a rarely-known incident during an interview with this reporter in Ankara.
He said that among the five murdered East Turkestan leaders were Chairman of the People's Republic of East Turkestan Akhmat Jan, Commander-in-Chief Delil Khan, Deputy Commander-in-chief Yiaskh Bakh and Foreign Minister Abdukahreem. They were invited to take part in negotiations in Beijing, but required by the Chinese authorities to first fly to Alma-Ata (阿拉木图) in the Soviet Union (now the capital of Kazakhstan) and then transfer to a flight to Beijing from there. It was reported that the plane crashed soon after taking off from Alma-Ata, killing all five.
"The fact is that all five leaders were kidnapped by Stalin and murdered in Moscow," Erkin said. "One of the former KGB leaders who had taken part in the torture of the five leaders revealed this secret in an article published in a Russian magazine after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
"The article was translated into Uighur, and many people have read it. Following the clues mentioned in that article, some East Turkestan exiles made a special trip to Moscow and found a former Kremlin doctor who participated in the event at the time. That doctor said all five leaders were imprisoned in the Czar's old stable and killed there," Erkin said.
The sudden death of the five top Turkestan leaders angered the Uighur people. The commander of an artillery regiment of the Islamic Republic in Yining, Rokhmannov, ordered a massacre of all local Han Chinese.
"More than 7,000 Han Chinese were killed, both soldiers and civilians," recalled Haci. "Not long after that, the Chinese army marched in and Rokhmannov was killed within three days. Many of his soldiers were also either killed or imprisoned."
In addition to their sympathy for the Uighur people's sufferings, many Turkish people, scholars and government officials alike consider Xinjiang their own origin.
Even some Turkish officials refer to Xinjiang as their "motherland" and believe that those who marched westward to Turkey originally came from Xingjiang. That is the reason they call Xingjiang East Turkestan.
The suffering of the people of East Turkestan has generated sympathy in many Turkic nations. After the death of the five top leaders, another well-known Turkestan leader, Isa Yusuf Alptekin, fled to Turkey.
The East Turkestan independence movement had won wide respect from both the ruling and opposition parties in Turkey. When he died in 1995 in Istanbul at the age of 94, around a million Turkish people, from top government officials to ordinary citizens, mourned his passing.
Isa was buried next to the graves of two former presidents of Turkey. The Turkish government even built a memorial park for Isa in Istanbul, complete with an East Turkestan flag flying on park grounds.
The flags of Turkey and East Turkestan have a similar design. Both sport a crescent moon in the middle. The only difference between the two flags is the background color -- red for Turkey and blue for East Turkestan.
Concerning relations between the Turkish and the East Turkestan people, Turan Yazgan, a professor at Istanbul University and chairman of the Turkic World Research Foundation, said: "We Turks and the Uighur have the same ethnic ancestry. We did not delineate this ourselves, but Allah did; it is His will. There are two places in the world where the Turkic people still have no freedom. One is northern Iran, the other is East Turkestan. We have a responsibility to help."
(This is the second part of a seven-part series by Cao Chang-ching, a long-time observer of ethnic liberation movements in China.)