Putting the spotlight on a genocide; Canada’s small Uighur community struggles to make people understand

Putting the spotlight on a genocide; Canada’s small Uighur community struggles to make people understand
COQUITLAM, B.C.—The sounds of giggles from children mixed with the distant buzz of a chainsaw prevail as Turnisa Matsedik-Qira sits silently at a concrete picnic table in a suburban Vancouver playground. Sucking in short breaths, she is trying to say something.

Matsedik-Qira has been trying to swallow her emotions for the last minute, so she can continue explaining what it feels like to not have any communication with her family in China’s far western Xinjiang Autonomous Region for more than three years. Reports consistent with genocide have emerged from the region.

While pressing her finger underneath her eye to suppress a tear, she manages to voice her biggest fear.

“We know what they are going to do with our families and most of the people are scared.”

Matsedik-Qira, who moved to Canada in 2006 and now works as a nurse, is part of a small community of about 70 families who live in Vancouver as well as about 100 who are here as students. Across Canada, mostly in cities, there are about 2,000 Uighurs.

In recent years, the community has been increasingly fearing for loved ones in Xinjiang.

It is there the Chinese government has been accused of committing acts of genocide, including the mass internment of up to 2 million Uighurs and other Turkic minorities.

There are some protests in Canada over the acts, including one earlier this month in Montreal. But generally the issue hasn’t gained much momentum in Canada.

Most Canadians have no idea who Uighurs or other Turkic minorities in China are to begin with, so trying to bring attention to their mass detention is difficult.

But those fighting for Uighur rights are hoping recent statements from Canadian institutions may put the country at the international forefront of challenging Beijing on its actions in Xinjiang.

In Ottawa, weeks ago, another arm of Canadian politics decided it already has met it.

On Oct. 21 a parliamentary subcommittee on International Human Rights declared the Chinese Communist Party’s actions in Xinjiang meet the threshold for genocide under the United Nations Genocide Convention.

The committee heard from those who have spent time in internment camps in Xinjiang, where reports of physical and sexual abuse have surfaced. Other credible reports say some of those interned are being used for forced labour.

China has repeatedly denied human rights abuses or genocide in Xinjiang, insisting the camps serve as vocational training centres. Beijing became angry when the subcommittee released its decision, with the country’s foreign minister, Zhao Lijian, accusing the subcommittee of lying.

The Canadian committee has recommended sanctions over the treatment of Uighurs.

But Matsedik-Qira said she has been consistently let down by Canada’s public officials. The committee’s declaration and Rae’s stated intentions mean little to her.

“That doesn’t give me any hope,” she said, “because the Chinese government is a perfect liar and will hide everything.”

She said if the UN wants to properly investigate they will have to rely on informants in Xinjiang, believing China would never allow a proper official probe in the region.

She also worries about how much Canadians and government officials actually care about what’s happening in Xinjiang.

Often a solo protester, Matsedik-Qira said she has been yelled at in the streets by people who support the Chinese government while she holds a sign urging people to boycott Chinese products over China’s human rights abuses. Emails to Canadian politicians are sometimes answered but rarely go anywhere, she said.

She said the protests have brought intimidation attempts including anonymous phone calls telling her she should “be careful” and think about her family in Xinjiang.

Such intimidation has caused many of Canada’s Uighurs to stay silent on what is happening in China, Matsedik-Qira said. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged China has increased its harassment of Chinese diaspora in the country.

So, behind closed doors with other Uighurs is where the community talks about their missing or arrested family members and the anguish it has brought upon them.

Xinjiang is a region nearly twice the size of British Columbia with a population of about 25 million people. Many are Muslim Uighurs or Turkic peoples, speaking a Turkic language and resembling those from Central Asia rather than East Asia.

There is a sovereignty movement to make the region an independent country called East Turkestan and violence in the region’s capital city, Urumqi, has erupted more than once as ethnic tensions there have swelled over two decades. In one incident in 2009 nearly 200 people were killed during riots in the city.



In 2014, what the Chinese government described as “Islamic extremists from Xinjiang” killed 31 people at a train station in Kunming, in Yunnan province. Some Uighur activists dispute the Chinese Communist Party’s version of the attack or who perpetrated it.

In the years since, Beijing’s surveillance and incarceration of Uighur people has drastically increased.

In Ottawa, witnesses told the subcommittee what the increased pressure on Uighurs looks like on the ground.

“The subcommittee heard that detainees are abused psychologically, physically and sexually. They are forbidden from speaking the Uighur language or practising their religion,” read a news release from the subcommittee on human rights in October.

While human rights groups have demanded Beijing stop its actions in Xinjiang, movement on the issue from the international community has been slow, though the United States has placed sanctions on those responsible and on companies said to use forced labour.

But the declaration by the Canadian subcommittee is a victory for Uighur activists, like Mehmet Tohti of the Uighur Rights Advocacy Project, who have argued the description of events in Xinjiang being referred to as “human rights abuses” downplays the significance of the problem.

“What has happened has far more exceeded the scope of human rights violations,” Tohti told the Star. “It’s genocide we are talking about. It’s crimes against humanity we are talking about.”
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