Writing as catharsis

The systematic obliteration of an entire ethnic group

Posted in Ranting and rambling by Lachlan R. Dale on December 22, 2011

What does the phrase “the systematic obliteration of an entire ethnic group” mean to you?

To me, the idea exists purely as an abstraction. It’s a kind of terrible and calculated act beyond imagining; an evil far exceeding any crime of passion. Ethnic destruction or genocide is cold and calculating by definition. A dead, efficient precision is required, such that innumerable people are to be erased from this plane of existence as casually as one would erase numbers from a spreadsheet. The term ‘genocide’ seems to be too sedate and too unfeeling to represent what we’re talking about here.

My perception of what the concept of ‘ethnic cleansing’ can actually entail has changed drastically over the years. My first brush with this distinctly human evil was, like most, the Holocaust. While the tragedy is obviously beyond imaging, I am still met with the vague sense that when evil rose up, it was fought – that whatever good there was in the world stood up. Now, this could be purely as a result of some rather clever historical narrative construction, or a program of nationalistic indoctrination. Nonetheless I still feel like that sickening chapter has been stamped out and sterilised; a definitive end has been reached. We analysed, we abhorred, we learnt and we moved on.

Strangely, it wasn’t this particular genocide that had a long-lasting effect on me. Back in high school I read “A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide” (which was unfortunately not part of the school curriculum.) It was in those pages that I began to appreciate just how many attempts at ethnic cleansing there had been in the last century. More surprising still was the fact that very few people knew about most of them (or at least the people I came into contact with) – you’d think this kind of stuff might form a blip on their radar. It seemed pretty important to me. Most depressingly, some instances of genocide seemed miserably avoidable, with evidence of complicity on behalf of supposedly ‘good’ governments.

The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was the prime example. Reading about all the bullshit political in-action surrounding that disgraceful failure of humanity is enough to make one sick. Since then I have held the view that a politician’s posturing on human rights is little more than just a strategic and calculated risk of self-interest. Governments seem to lack a definite sense of morality. They will fail the standards given to them, and they cannot be relied on to take a pro-active approach.

Now days, I mark the reading of that book as one the defining moments of my 25 years of life – and I would encourage you to read it to. That book set me off on a path of passionate exploration for answers. It made me think that inaction, distraction and ignorance might not be a legitimate reason for apathy. It made me aware of the enormous, gaping chasm between political rhetoric and action.

Thanks to a recent experience, I can now point to another moment that pierced my soul to its very core. In October of 2011, a slight woman named Rebiya Kadeer took her place in a podium before me. There in a room of some few hundred people, Rebiya began to talk about the plight of the Uyghur people – who I had never heard of. The Uyghur’s are an ethnic group indigenous to Central Asia who have been and are still today brutally repressed by the Chinese government.

Prior to her talk, I had held the assumption that, in this day of plentiful technology and content creation, most important world events are known, reported and broadcast. Perhaps that assumption exposes an element of naivety on my behalf, because it would necessitate a major change in the dynamics of world politics and media since those pitiful events in east Africa in 1994. In any case, 90 minutes later my delusive assumption was promptly erased.

Rebiya Kadeer suffered a fate common to her people. She was arrested for doing little more than trying to stand up for her fundamental rights as a human being. Rebiya told us all how she had accepted she was going to die. She had been tortured, starved, beaten and put in solitary confinement. The odds of survival were so pathetically minute as to be laughed at. She was explicitly told by guards “you will die in this dark cell, and when you die we will bury you right here and we’ll step on your body every day”.

One day she was taken from solitary confinement into a slightly nicer cell. This baffled her. How could it be possible? Then she noticed the guards began treating her a little better. Finally, some men in fancy suits came and, after making her swear she would never be politically active, released her from prison. It turns out she was released thanks to the letter-writing campaign of Amnesty International. That is all well and nice and should make us all feel warm and fuzzy (rather than counting the hundreds of thousands who remain unsaved), but this isn’t my point either.

Rebiya went on to describe the situation for Uyghur’s in China. The description of their plight made me totally reassess the ‘mere’ measure of cultural destruction through mass murder. What I discovered was something far more abhorrent. Uyghur’s are not simply repressed. They are not even simply massacred openly (which, considering their situation that might even be seen as a blessing to some), though to be sure there are massacres. The Chinese government is not simply out to murder, they are out to systematically obliterate the Uyghur people and everything they represent – their culture; their language; their traditions; their religion; their land; their wealth; their songs and their very souls. To me this seems a much deeper evil.

Once the Uyghur’s land was occupied by China their property was and then given to Chinese settlers – who are still today shipped in by the tens of thousands to dominate the region. Next, they destroyed their education system and forced the entire population into communist re-education. They publically humiliated their religious leaders and their traditions as part of atheistic Communist indoctrination. In an effort to erase history, the Chinese authorities captured and killed all the Uyghur intellectuals who could or would dispute the new Chinese history of events. They attempted to cloak the Uyghur people in a veil of Orwellian ignorance, while portraying themselves and civilisers, out to save a backwards people.

Single, attractive young Uyghur women are regularly rounded up to be used for slave labour, shipped off to other parts of China. The Uyghur language is officially banned from use for any purpose. Their ancient cities and monuments of stone – some with over 3,000 years of history – are being demolished. Naturally, many have fled their homeland as refugees. As a result, the Chinese government declared that Uyghur’s are not allowed to have passports.

It seems stupidly obvious to point out that the Uyghur’s cannot say how they really feel. To do so will get them jailed or killed. They enjoy close to no human rights at all. Their culture has a very strong musical tradition. It is through song that their utmost joys of their people are expressed – but even this is not sacred for the Chinese government. Song-writers, performers and other artistic or cultural icons are specifically targeted for murder, humiliation and re-education.

But it gets worse still. Not only are prominent musicians targeted, but the Chinese government actively steals the songs of the Uyghur people – including their most cherished and ancient folk songs. The lyrics of their songs are changed into pro-Chinese celebrations. Through state education the government then goes on to claim that these are traditional songs of the Chinese people, rather than of the Uyghur’s.

They do this on a commercial scale as well. Remember Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Well, that soundtrack is made up of Uyghur songs that have been tweaked and repackaged as representative of Chinese culture, such that that movie is literally part of a wider plan to eradicate any semblance of Uyghur culture or people.

This ongoing process of intimidation, indoctrination, indiscriminate and targeted murder, terrorism and cultural destruction is simply beyond imagining. One can only imagine how deeply wounded you would feel growing up under 50+ years of Chinese rule. One can only imagine what it would be like for a child to be born a Uyghur, having to learn their people’s customs, religion and culture under shadow – if at all. How would it feel to never feel like you knew your identity – that your very identity was an object of ridicule?

Prior to any Chinese national holiday it is traditional for authorities to execute anywhere from 5 to 10 Uyghur’s from every major town as a warning to anyone who might think it a good time to stand up for their people. The oppression is monotonous, relentless and largely indiscriminate; aimed at crushing the very being of a peaceful, pacifist and deeply serene people.

Take the worst you know about the horrible repression of Tibetans — but then imagine it WITHOUT the global spotlight and recognition of their plight. All of this takes place under shadow, while the international community at large remains ignorance or disinterested. Again, I am quite proud to say that Amnesty International is the first organisation to report on the plight of the Uyghur people under Chinese rule.

Rebiya’s impossibly brave talk gave me a deeper understanding of the scale of evil in this world. I’ve seen the shockingly huge amount that people can get away with in a certain set of circumstance. Moments such as these long shattered any childish belief in an all-powerful arbiter of good to place the world in perfect order and harmony.

Everyone in the world comes at sometimes to suffering. Our defining feature as members of the human race is how we respond to it; do we lose all hope? Do we eradicate all love? Or do we face the bare facts of reality, and try to begin anew building from the bottom up? It would still seem that the Uyghur’s – like the Tibetans – are still singing their songs in shadow and practicing their devout spiritual beliefs underground. However I can’t help but feel that justice is ever likely to be done.

As a final addendum it is worth noting that Rebiya is frequently threatened by Chinese authorities – often against the lives of her children and grandchildren. In spite of these threats, she is not silent.