Me on Twitter on July 1:
IMO most important development in PRC security is mainstreaming of support for Uyghurs in TK national politics. Way more serious than SCS.
Turkish anti-PRC furor was fueled by reports of the PRC campaign against Ramadan.
In Daily Sabah, the English-language version of Sabah, a Turkish daily closely associated with Erdogan’s AKP party, Kilic Kanat, a professor at Penn State’s Erie campus with a strong interest in Uyghur issues and something of a China hawk, wrote a highly critical piece, China’s war on Ramadan, on the PRC’s campaign against Ramadan observance and, indeed the entire PRC system:
Instead of gaining legitimacy from and the loyalty of its citizens through political reform, participation and pluralism, the government seems to increase the sophistication of its repressive methods… These fears and concerns have reached paranoia in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of northwest China. One more time the Chinese government is adapting tragicomic methods and mechanisms to soothe its fear of being destroyed by the ethnic Turkic Uighur minority.
Criticism of the PRC quickly moved beyond the opinion columns, as can be seen from a few days’ snips from Twitter:
China Ramadan Ban: Turkey Protesters Target Chinese Restaurant In Istanbul During Holy Month Of Fastinghttp://www.ibtimes.com/china-ramadan-ban-turkey-protesters-target-chinese-restaurant-istanbul-during-holy-1990677#.VZREmsHm9Ih.twitter … [with the requisite irony, it turned out the offending restaurant’s only “Chinese” employee was the Uyghur cook-PL]
A rda Turan’dan ‘Doğu Türkistan’ mesajı – Hürriyet Futbol http://www.hurriyet.com.tr/spor/futbol/29415391.asp … via @hurriyet [an internationally known Turkish footballer playing for Madrid asked for prayers for East Turkestan on his social media feed]
A popular Turkish comedian, Şahan Gökbakar, posted a picture on his facebook page showing the PRC flag as a bloody blotch on the East Turkestan flag:
A campaign against China started in Turkish social media today with the hashtag #StopTerorismInChina today. [These tweets are mostly in English and include atrocity photos, some of which are apparently bogus, such as a picture of a woman who hung herself in a well with her two children in India, but was attributed incorrectly to Xinjiang–PL]
A political/electoral component marked protests on June 28, as reported by Today’s Zaman:
In Ankara, the Ülkü Ocakları, a youth organization affiliated with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), prayed at a funeral procession for those killed in East Turkestan, at the Mustafa Asım Köksal Mosque in Keçiören. Speaking after the prayer, Olcay Kılavuz, the head of the youth movement, gave a press statement where he declared that the red flag of Turkey and the blue flag of East Turkestan were equal. [emphasis added]
Kılavuz also said that members of Ülkü Ocakları would resume their struggle in favor of their brothers in East Turkestan, until their last breath. He added that the government was keeping silent about the killings and ongoing oppression in East Turkestan.
Associate Professor Savaş Eğilmez from the history department of Atatürk University in Erzurum joined other academics in criticizing the current ban against Uyghur citizens fasting in East Turkestan, according to the Anadolu news agency. “We must do all that we can for this oppression to stop,” he said.
Another political punctuation point in the campaign occurred on July 1.
In Daily Sabah, illustrated with a picture of a crowd holding up an effigy of a bloody baby, with a weeping woman and the blue East Turkestan flag, appeared the headline:
Protests broke out overnight all over Turkey with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand that China stop its alleged discrimination against Muslims.
Demonstrators gathered in Istanbul, İzmir, Trabzon, Samsun, Bursa, and 20 other locations late Wednesday to chant and shout for justice for an East Turkistan.…
In Tarabya district of Istanbul – the home of the Chinese Consulate, and the largest protest – hundreds of members of the youth branch of the country’s dominant political force, the AK Party, gathered outside the building where they broke fast with water and Turkish bagels.
Slogans such as “Long live hell for torturers”, “Silence is consent, wake up and raise your voice” and “We stand with East Turkistan” were shouted.
The “concern” expressed Wednesday night is reflective of the sentiment that many Turks have with regard to the Uighur issue.
Many Turks refer to China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region – home to many ethnic minority groups, including Turkic Uighur people — as East Turkestan.
They believe that Uighur are among a number of Turkic tribes that inhabit the region, and consider it to be part of Central Asia, not China. [emphasis added]
The PRC government hasn’t responded to the demonstrations yet (though it did ask for “clarification” of the Turkish government’s Ramadan criticisms); but it undoubtedly noted 1) the organizational role of the AKP youth wing 2) the East Turkestan flags/slogans in addition to Uyghur friendly-rhetoric in a government affiliated demo and 3) favorable coverage of the demonstrations by the AKP-friendly Daily Sabah.
They may also find it interesting that, at least in Daily Sabah’s coverage, the presence of ethnic Uyghurs—who, one would think would certainly attend such a demo—was not reported.
And as context for the demonstrations, we find that President Erdogan wants to demonstrate the depth of his support for Uyghurs, either out of conviction, geopolitical calculation, or the need to protect his nationalist political flank against the more stridently nationalistic MHP party (whose youth wing had provided the rhetoric at the funeral procession for Uyghur dead on June 28):
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli have clashed over which of them has actually displayed solidarity with the Muslim Uyghur minority in China’s northwestern East Turkistan (Xinjiang) region.
Messages that Bahçeli posted on his Twitter account late on June 27 fueled the row, as he suggested that nobody was even talking about the plight of Uyghur Turks, while everybody has been obsessed with the developments in the predominantly Kurdish town of Kobane on the Turkish border with Syria, which has been the scene of deadly clashes between Kurdish forces and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) fighters.
“From Nişantaşı to Yüksekova, everybody is concerned about the fight between two terrorist groups in Kobane. Nobody is speaking about China’s brutality in East Turkestan, not even mentioning it,” Bahçeli said.
Violent attacks and unrest have been on the rise in recent years both across China and in East Turkistan (Xinjiang). Beijing has blamed what it describes as “terrorist” incidents on violent separatists from the vast, resource-rich region, where information is often difficult to verify inde-pendently. Rights groups accuse China’s government of cultural and religious repression that they say fuels unrest in East Turkistan (Xinjiang).
Erdoğan appeared to have taken the criticism from Bahçeli personally when he delivered a speech at a fast-breaking dinner a few hours later in the same day.
“Now, some politicians emerge and supposedly refer to me. What do they say? ‘Those who solely deal with Arabs and solely with those in Kobane and Tal Abyad are forgetting Uyghur Turks.’ I am telling that person: ‘Have you ever travelled to the place where Uyghur Turks live?’ But Tayyip Erdoğan went,” Erdoğan said, without citing Bahçeli’s name.
Media outlets revealed in their archives that almost exactly one year ago, in the run-up to the presidential election in August 2014 when he was elected to his current post, Erdoğan suggested that Bahçeli had never been to the region in his life.
At the time, Bahçeli responded to Erdoğan with photographs posted to his Twitter account. Photos showed Bahçeli with Uyghur Turks in East Turkistan (Xinjiang) and Kashgar during a visit to China in 2001 in his capacity as the deputy prime minister of the time.
Amid the sound and fury, a most important development went almost unnoticed.
In what is huge news for the Uyghur diaspora, the government of Thailand allowed 170 of the Uyghurs it had detained for over a year to go to Turkey. Here’s how RFA reported it:
Gungor Yavuzarslan, the president of the International Journalists Association of Turkish-Speaking Countries, was quoted by the Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) network Wednesday confirming that 173 Uyghurs had arrived in the country a day earlier, and calling their acceptance a “diplomatic victory for Turkey on the international stage.”
A Uyghur scholar living in the capital Ankara also confirmed the group’s arrival to RFA, but said Turkish officials had sought to downplay the move amid ongoing internal political negotiations.
“I am aware of this news, but the Turkish government is trying to form a coalition [between the ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement party (MHP)] following the parliamentary election, so they do not want to publicize it,” he said, speaking to RFA on condition of anonymity.
I should say why, given way the MHP & AKP have both been playing up the Uyghur angle, I don’t really understand the comment about the publicity.
Certainly, the triumph was diluted somewhat by the fact that Thailand split the families, if not the baby, by only allowing women and children to leave and, presumably out of deference to the PRC, continues to detain the men. Nevertheless, a big win for Turkey and I imagine Erdogan would want to shout this from the mountaintops and tender regard for his probable MHP allies (whom he had just ripped on the same issue in remarks at an iftar dinner) did not really figure in his calculations.
I’m assuming the local press has been told to downplay the news (there have been a couple of brief articles in the Turkish press that I’ve been able to find, and most outlets have reprinted an Al Jazeera article & the RFA piece) so the PRC doesn’t feel it’s getting its nose rubbed in it. Given the close relationship between the PRC and the new Thai junta, I’m guessing that the Thai government obtained assurances of PRC forbearance before releasing the Uyghurs.
The AP subsequently quoted the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson as expressing displeasure at the release, saying:
Beijing opposes “any actions that aid and abet, or even support illegal migration.”
“We believe that the international community should share common responsibility for combating and preventing illegal migration.”
But I didn’t find the reference on the “Spokesperson’s Remarks” (which is highlights, to the PRC anyway, of the press conference, not a full transcript) at the PRC MOFA website, an indication to me that the PRC knew about it, had decided to soft-pedal it, and is now busy moving on.
So we get a picture of popular anger at PRC abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang, stoked by two nationalist Turkish parties, the AKP and the MHP, in a spirit of political competition, combined with a general tendency of the governments, both on the PRC and Turkish side to treat the current brouhaha as a secondary element in the ebb and flow of the diplomatic and strategic relationship.
In other words, not much different from other governments that find themselves compelled to modulate their resentment at overbearing PRC behavior in response to Beijing’s outreach, blandishments, and arm-twisting.
Business as usual in the Rising China era, maybe.
But maybe not.
Turkey’s a bit different.
One of the most interesting developments of the last few years has been Turkish neo-Ottomanism.
Turkey grew out of an intensely nationalistic, perhaps even prototypically fascist rejection of Ottoman imperial and multicultural pretensions after the collapse of the empire in the wake of World War I, in favor of a laser focus on the supremacy of ethnic Turks in an ethnically cleansed, militarily defensible, and politically impregnable homeland.
However, in an interesting parallel with Japan’s “quest for normalcy” under Abe 70 years after its shattering defeat in World War II, Erdogan has adopted a quasi-imperial interest in asserting Turkey’s influence both regionally, in the areas of the old Ottoman empire, and in Central Asia, where the Turkish people originated before they made their westward trek to the shores of the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
Today, the “stans” of Central Asia are largely Turkic speaking and considered a suitable object of Turkish attentions, and especially those of Turkish nationalists. This map reconfigures Central Asia into North, South, and East Turkestan.
Xinjiang, the “stan that never was” in my formulation, homeland of the Uyghurs, is East Turkestan.
In current Turkish nationalist cartography, East Turkestan is the opposite bookend to Turkey in a belt of Turkic civilization stretching across Central Asia. The East Turkestan flag is identical to the current Turkish flag, except in background color (red for Turkey, sky-blue for East Turkistan) making for some nice graphics and patriotic associations.
The Uyghurs figure in Erdogan’s notorious honor guard of 16 soldiers dressed in historical warrior costumes, who astounded the world when they appeared during a welcoming ceremony for President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in January 2015.
Each warrior represents one of the 16 “great (or historic) Turkish empires” commemorated on Turkey’s official seal.
One of the stars marks the Uyghur Khanate, which was actually centered in present-day Mongolia (Uyghurs subsequently migrated southwestward to present-day Xinjiang). The Uyghur Khanate appears to have had subjected the Tang Dynasty to a de facto tributary relation when the Chinese empire was weak, doing rather badly, and desperately in need of steppe military muscle.
The Uyghur Khanate anchors a chain of Turkic empires as conceived by Turkish nationalists, one that extends across Central Asia and, naturally, terminates in modern-day Turkey, in a “March of Empire” narrative that is understandably more popular than the “Turkish tribes asskicked westward by competing steppe kingdoms until they ended up on the shores of the Mediterranean” version preferred by Mongolian nationalists and perhaps some historians.
Thanks to Hurriyet, we know that the Uyghur warrior was the sixth man from the top of the steps on the left, with the black flaps hanging down and almost obscuring his face.
Wonder if Erdogan will deploy that honor guard next time there’s a state visit from the PRC.
I believe Turkish neo-imperial incitement of Uyghur pride involves more than historical dressup.
As a matter of government policy, Turkey has unambiguously been positioning itself ideologically as the protector of the Uyghurs and has welcomed Uyghur refugees to Turkey. It has also advocated on behalf of Uyghur refugees who have escaped Xinjiang, providing consular services and even passports, and, as noted above, energetically agitated with the government of Thailand to allow Uyghurs detained in Thailand for illegal entry to continue on to Turkey.
That’s part and parcel of Turkish official discourse. But there are also compelling hints of shenanigans by Turkish security forces presumably intended to engage, penetrate, exploit, subvert Uyghur militant elements and, if the universal history of covert ops is any guide, abet one or more embarrassing terrorism-related screwups that must be hushed up.
There are dark mutterings that Uyghur fighters perhaps up to a number of several hundred have appeared in Syria thanks to the assistance of the Turkish government. Uyghur refugees reside in rather miserable conditions in Turkey and some young men might fall prey to the blandishments of ostensibly freelance but presumably government security forces-linked jihadi recruiters for the Syrian struggle.
There are also signs that the Turkish government has gone a step further and actively facilitated Uyghur illegal emigration from the PRC by providing false passports, perhaps for the purpose of recruiting and developing trained Uyghur militants as a security and power projection asset.
In the end of 2014, the PRC government shut down a “passport forging” ring that was selling falsified Turkish passports to Uyghurs seeking to leave the country.
I put the phrase “passport forging” in quotes because it would appear to be extremely difficult for these passports to be “forged” by a criminal gang, and not prepared with the assistance of the Turkish government.
Turkish passports include a smart chip. The smart chip contains more than the alphanumeric text information from the passport page; it also includes biometric data on facial dimensions. The data is loaded onto a chip, which is then encrypted.
Provision of falsified Turkish passports to Uyghurs apparently became a big deal.
Today’s Zaman, a not particularly Erdogan-friendly mainstream outlet, retailed a sensational piece of tittle-tattle from the local Turkish press in April:
According to a story in the Meydan daily, A.G., an aide of Nurali T., a Uyghur Turk working for ISIL to provide militants with passports worldwide, Nurali T.’s office in İstanbul’s Zeytinburnu district functions as an ISIL passport office. Each passport was sold for $200, A.G. told Meydan.
More than 50,000 Uyghur Turks came to Turkey with these fake passports from China via Thailand and Malaysia and entered Syria after staying a day in İstanbul, Meydan reported. A.G. claimed that most of the Uyghurs with fake passports were caught by police in Turkish airports but they were released in Turkey after their passports were seized. “The Uyghurs’ release in Turkey is due to a secret [little-known] Turkish law on Uyghur Turks. More than 50,000 Uyghurs joined ISIL through this method,” A.G. added.
A.G. further said that Nurali T. organizes recruits from around the world from his İstanbul office. Militants who entered Turkey with these fake passports are hosted either in hotels or guesthouses for a day before they join ISIL in Syria, A.G. said.
The 50,000 militant figure is, hopefully, vastly exaggerated BS. The best estimates are that there only 50,000 Uyghurs in Turkey en toto. But I suspect there is a grain of truth in it as well.
I infer the Turkish government’s angle is that Uyghurs get falsified travel documents, but these documents are flagged at Turkish immigration and confiscated so the refugees have no alternative to obeying the dictates of their handlers in Turkish security. Some eager and promising Uyghurs get hustled off to gain training and battlefield experience in Syria, and hopefully survive to become long-term assets for whatever the Turkish security services hope to accomplish in Central Asia as well as the Middle East.
Since Turkish biometric passports are good for free travel within the EU, I would think the Turkish government would not be interested in advertising that they are handing out passports to Uyghurs, some of whom engage in terrorist activity that advances Turkish interests, or fuel anxiety that they have anything less than a 100% success rate in recovering these passports…or that maybe anti-PRC terrorists exploited the generous Turkish clandestine passport policy to bug out of the PRC for reasons of their own.
And it looks plausible that the first big screwup in Turkish government footsie with Uyghur militants is now playing out in Indonesia, as this June 12 article from Benar News implies:
There are four suspected Uyghurs currently on trial in Indonesia. “Suspected” because they insist they are Turkish citizens per the impeccable Turkish passports they were holding when the Indonesian government arrested them, even though (in a rather basic tradecraft lapse) they apparently neglected to memorize the birthdates listed on the passport.
The case of these four Uyghurs is not just a minor annoyance to the PRC government. It claims that these detainees were involved in the bloody attack at the Kunming rail station that killed 33 and wounded over 100.
And it’s not just a minor annoyance to the Indonesian government. It does not believe that the four were engaged in tourism that went awry when they ended up on remote island allegedly attempting to link up with a notorious Indonesian separatist/terrorist/Islamic militant, one Santoso.
Turkish official attitude…well:
Officials at the Turkish embassy in Jakarta did not deny Asludin’s claim about his clients being Turkish citizens.
“You should take into account what the lawyer says. On the other hand, [the Indonesian] Attorney General officially asked the Turkish embassy to provide the translator for the court. So this is what procedure says, and we follow that,” Ambassador Zekeriya Akcam said in a statement sent to BenarNews on Thursday.
A fine kettle of fish.
In my opinion, the Turkish government looks rather enviously at the Arab Sunni paramilitary muscle on tap to project power and influence in the Middle East for Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
I think President Erdogan would like, as a matter of national self-interest as well as personal ego, develop a similar capability using Turkic-speaking paramilitary assets to project Turkish power into the Middle East, mainly Syria, to make sure that Turkey has sufficient heft to stand up to Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the subject of Syria’s future or lack of it.
But the paramilitary tool will also give Turkey the option of assisting/intimidating/countering local forces in Central Asia. That means competing with the PRC, as well as trying to overawe the rickety ex-Soviet stans.
And Uyghurs, otherwise stateless and many with an intense sense of grievance against the PRC and the willingness to leave Xinjiang and fight, are a tempting source of manpower.
I’d speculate that the Turkish government is beginning to regard Uyghur anger as a useful asset in competing with the PRC for influence in the Turkic-speaking stans of Central Asia, and perhaps even punish the PRC for its resistance to Turkish aims in Syria.
Particularly today, burgeoning overt Turkish moral and diplomatic sponsorship of Uyghur aspirations is an important geopolitical issue for the PRC.
For decades, the dominant Islamic political and military formation in South Asia has been Mullah Omar’s Afghan Taliban. And the PRC, drawing on its history and contacts as quartermaster for the foreign support of the anti-Soviet mujahideen, has persistently and effectively engaged with the Afghan Taliban, both directly and through Pakistan, to protect PRC interests…and discourage the harboring of Uyghur militants.
Now, however, this system shows signs of breaking down, as IS gains a hearing and adherents among splinter groups that are less than entranced with Mullah Omar, and viscerally opposed to the PRC and its oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Chief among them is the Pakistan Taliban, or PTT, which is not just the branch office of the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan.
The formative event for the creation of the PTT was the storming of the Lal Masjid mosque in Islamabad by President Musharaff in 2007—at the behest of the People’s Republic of China.
Elements of the PTT, and anti-Mullah Omar factions inside Afghanistan, are declaring allegiance to IS. And they also provide a welcome to Uyghur militants.
Cracks in the containment regime are emerging at a most unwelcome time for the PRC, since it is escalating the repression of Uyghur political, religious, and cultural expression, and trying to maintain the stability of Xinjiang, a one-time backwater that has been become a linchpin of the PRC’s Central Asia/Silk Road strategy.
If the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan government are unable to dissuade local jihadis from harboring Uyghur militants, and Turkey does not resist the urge to meddle on behalf of the Uyghurs, the PRC faces a situation in Xinjiang potentially analogous to the anti-Soviet war conducted by the mujahideen in Chechnya: local militant forces with cross-border havens attracting foreign fighters and enjoying material and diplomatic support from an outside power as a matter of ideology and strategic self-interest.
I expect the PRC government will put immense pressure on the Afghan and Pakistan governments, the Taliban, and Turkey to deny Uyghur separatists institutional support. And if the situation in Xinjiang and in Pakistan/Afghanistan shows signs of getting out of hand, I would not rule out the possibility that the PRC’s first international military intervention since 1979 would occur, not in the South China Sea, but in the Central Asian borderlands.
But if Turkey provides material, propaganda, and diplomatic support to Uyghur aspirations as part of a power play in a contest with the PRC for influence in Central Asia,that might not be enough.
As to whether Turkey would recklessly put the Uyghur issue in play and endanger the rickety system of Uyghur control instituted by the PRC and Kazahkstan and endorsed by Pakistan & Afghanistan, well, one word…Syria.
Turkey is determinedly blowing up an entire country on its own doorstep, so I’m not sure it would have overwhelming strategic and moral qualms about screwing up a remote corner of Inner Asia, especially if it turns out cultivating the Uyghur cause is perceived to be good politics, useful diplomacy, and a nastily effective power projection gambit.
And that’s why I think the mainstreaming of support for Uyghurs as a bedrock issue in Turkish politics is big thing for the PRC—bigger than the entire pivot-enabling kabuki over uninhabited rocks, atolls, and sandbars in the South China Sea.