May 2, 2022
By Alyaa Alhadjri, Tan Hong Kai & Martin Vengadesan
Born in Ghulja, East Turkestan, into a family "prosecuted" by the Chinese government, Uyghur activist Omer Kanat has spent most of his life travelling the world to share the plight of his people left behind.
To others outside of the Uyghur diaspora, East Turkestan is known as China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where the government has been accused of committing crimes against humanity and genocide against the Muslim-minority ethnic group.
"My father spent nine years in a Chinese prison. My mother was pregnant when the Chinese government took my father to prison.
"He came out of prison when I was about nine years old, and then we moved to Afghanistan," said Omer in an interview with Malaysiakini during his recent visit to Kuala Lumpur.
Omer's refugee journey took him across Central Asia into Europe and the US, where he currently resides, with no option of returning to his homeland after being placed on China's immigration blacklist.
This was the path followed by thousands of others who succeeded in escaping and resettling abroad, raising awareness of the dire situation back home through international advocacy work.
"We spent almost eight years in Afghanistan, where I went to school, but after the Soviet invasion (in 1979), we had to leave Afghanistan for Iran. "And then from Iran to Turkey, from Turkey, I moved to Germany, and then from Germany to the US in 1999," he said, looking back on a life of exile. Involved with human rights group It was during his time as a teenager in Turkey in the 1980s that Omer said he first became involved with an Uyghur human rights group, fueled by his personal experiences and information that leaked out of Xinjiang of mounting suppression.
Reported estimates on the Uyghur population in Xinjiang as of last year cited a figure of 12.8 million people, while the World Uyghur Congress - an umbrella organisation of Uyghur groups - placed its diaspora numbers at less than two million people at the end of 2020.
"Most of them are still in Xinjiang. What is going on is not ethnic cleansing, it is genocide. "China doesn't allow any Uyghur to get out of the country. China even ordered Uyghurs abroad, thousands of students to return home because they are afraid of involvement in advocacy work and exposing what is going on," he said.
"Even in Egypt, you heard they rounded up the people, and the Egyptian government had deported the Uyghurs. "Every family who has someone abroad is in danger. They punish the parents if their son or daughter does not want to return to China. Because they said, 'you did not give them patriotic education' so they are not coming back," said Omer.
Omer referred to pressure placed by China on foreign governments, including Muslim-majority countries, to deport Uyghur refugees from their countries. In July last year, China's State Council Information Office reportedly issued a white paper titled "Respecting and Protecting the Rights of All Ethnic Groups in Xinjiang" which stated that the government had upheld a "people-centred approach to human rights protection".
While abroad, Omer said the Uyghur diaspora continues to preserve the community's culture for their children, even in the US where he permanently resides as a Turkish citizen. US president Joe Biden and his predecessor, Donald Trump, had both publicly decried China's persecution of the Uyghur, with the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 passed during the latter's administration.
However, it was reported that the US government had permitted entry to only one Uyghur refugee throughout 2019 and 2020, a situation attributed to major challenges faced in escaping Xinjiang.
'United diaspora' These days, Omer works closely with other Uyghur organisations through his role as founder and director of the research organisation Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), as well as executive committee chairperson of the World Uyghur Congress - representing some 65 percent of the Uyghurs diaspora - headquartered in Munich, Germany.
He said 46 organisations under the congress would gather during a global summit, last held in 2018, to discuss and come up with a consensus on various issues affecting their community.
"When we make decisions, of course, there cannot be 100 percent unity. We will have different ideas and different plans, but on important issues, we make decisions on what to do. "We will come together and decide, but the groups can do their activities in their countries according to local political situations," he explained.
Aside from his current research and advocacy work, Omer played an important role in disseminating information as a journalist and editor of Radio Free Asia's Uyghur Service for a decade up until 2009, spending time on the frontline of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Fluent in the Uyghur language, English, German and various Central Asian languages, Omer also served as senior editor of Radio Free Europe's Tajik Service. Ahead of the upcoming World Uyghur Congress next month, Omer said he continues to engage Muslim-majority governments, including Malaysia, to speak up against China's treatment of the Uyghurs.
Malaysia had, in September 2020, reiterated its stand to not extradite any Uyghur refugees even at China's request, citing Putrajaya's non-interference policy in the internal affairs of another country.
The then minister in the prime minister's department, Redzuan Md Yusof, reportedly told parliament that Uyghur refugees would also be allowed to travel from Malaysia for resettlement in a third country. China had in 2018 requested Malaysia to extradite 11 Uyghurs arrested in the country after being released from a Thai jail.
The government, however, did not yield to pressure, and it was eventually revealed they were deported to Turkey after being found by the courts to have done nothing wrong in Malaysia. - Mkini