Uyghur democracy leader Dolksun Isa is disappointed with India’s cancellation of his visa after issuing it. In an interview to Riyaz Wani, Isa says he is a strictly non-violent campaigner for Uyghur rights and China’s attempt to label him a terrorist is to delegitimise the human rights work that he does to support the Uyghur community. Edited excerpts from an interview.
The denial of visa by India has made you quite popular here. Are you aware of it?
It seems that many Indian media outlets picked up the story, so hopefully the Uyghur situation in China has got some attention in India.
What do you make of India’s last minute cancellation of the visa? You merely expressed your disappointment.
Sometimes it is difficult to travel to certain parts of the world because of China’s pressure against allowing human rights activists to gather and speak to one another and to the media. It is unfortunate that I was unable to attend, but I am hoping that I may travel to the country in the future.
Would such a trip spread aware-ness about the Uyghur movement?
It’s difficult to say. I think there is some knowledge of the Uyghur situation, but like in much of the world, Uyghur human rights issues remain hidden.
Tell us something about your early years in Xinjiang. I know you were once exiled to Turkey for distributing Uyghur history books to Uyghurs deprived of learning about their culture in Chinese communist schools.
I participated actively in the Uyghur Student demonstrations in December 1985. I also founded the Students’ Science and Culture Union at the university in 1987 and worked on programmes to eliminate illiteracy and promote science and lead other students in East Turkestan.
I was the leader of the student demonstration on 15 June 1988 and was expelled from the university in September 1988 after four months of house arrest and a six-hour-long dialogue with government officials about the students’ demands. Following this, I operated a small business and travelled to various cities in China and East Turkestan to collect information about the Chinese government’s Uyghur policy between 1988 and 1990. From 1990 to 1994, I learnt English and Turkish at Beijing Foreign Language University, and engaged in copying and distributing relevant Uyghur history books to the Uyghur community.
In 1994, I was forced to leave China and fled to Turkey.
What were you going to say at the Dharamsala conference?
As at other conferences, I would have focused my speech on some of the more recent and significant problems facing the Uyghur community. Some of the most significant problems today include harsh restrictions on religious and cultural expression leading to long jail terms in some cases, restrictions on free movement, arbitrary arrests, and extra-judicial killings. The Chinese government has also pressured its neighbours to return Uyghurs who have fled repression in contravention of international law.
I would have also spoken about how the Uyghur and Tibetan communities can work together along with other human rights defenders working on China issues. The conference would have allowed for constructive communication between all groups, so it was unfortunate that I was unable to attend.
You have rejected the comparison with Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar and called yourself a “strictly non-violent campaigner for Uyghur rights”?
I have been labelled as a terrorist by China primarily as a means to delegitimise the human rights work that I do to support the Uyghur community. China often calls people it doesn’t like and who are human rights defenders as terrorists and tries to link credible activists with violence. Since 9/11, China has used the “War on Terror” as a justification for its repressive measures in East Turkestan and tries to get the rest of the international community to see all Uyghurs as violent — a claim that clearly does not hold up to scrutiny if reliable information is available.
I have also rejected any comparison or association to China’s recent veto by the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee of Pakistani militant leader, Masood Azhar. Such a comparison seeks only to delegitimize my decades of work as a strictly non-violent campaigner for Uyghur rights.
Have you ever been to India?
I have not been to India before.