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The Bugur Insurgents: Religious Extremists or Freedom Fighters?

On September 21, 2014, a group of Uyghurs attacked Chinese interests in Xinjiang, including two police stations. Forty died. An eyewitness speaks.

By Kok Bayraq

September 21, 2022

A Chinese police image of the Bugur incident. From Weibo.

The world has seen many national independence struggles, most of which erupted during periods of colonial or imperial weakness and collapse, and had at least a reasonable chance of victory. By contrast, the recent Uyghur independence movement has emerged at a time when the enemy is the most powerful, and even trying to dominate the world. I think this is a unique and extraordinary phenomenon in human history.

The Bugur Insurgency happened eight years year ago today, on September 21, 2014, and was part of this larger phenomenon. On that day, a group of Uyghur insurgents launched an attack on Chinese interests in Bugur County in East Turkestan (Ch. Xinjiang), including two police stations. During the attack, two police officers, two auxiliary police officers, and six residents were killed. Forty attackers blew themselves up or were shot dead by police.

As always, China accused the insurgents of being religious extremists and terrorists, while Uyghur activists claimed that the attackers were young men and women who had lost hope for their future and acted out of suffering. In my view, neither claim represents the true nature of the insurgents.

Recently, I spoke with an eyewitness to the Bugur incident, and he shared the words he recalled he heard from the leader of the insurgents, Memet Tursun. “Brothers, don’t be so foolish to think that China will change. Even if it changes, its policy will not change for us. Let’s remember that four major changes occurred in [the] last century, [with] dozens of governments replaced, [but] no one has brought change to our destiny. We have to do something, even [if] the hope of success is 0.001%, because no action is 100% equal to waiting to be dead.”

Tursun, the eyewitness reported, had also said before the action began: “If you believe what [I] say, just follow me; we’ll meet in the other world. If you don’t, get away from me now, and save your life. But don’t forget, your poor souls will be a burden to you tomorrow; not only in the hereafter, but also in this world, you will see the day of hell …”

About 40 of the 60 who had gathered in Tursun’s house followed him, while the rest, including the witness, left the group. His journey of escape from his homeland started that day, and he reached Turkey in July 2015.

I asked him, “Eight years later today, how do you evaluate Memet Tursun’s words?” He answered, “When I decided to leave the group, I thought of my wife and children, and I [did not] want to disturb the peace of my five brothers and their families. However, all my brothers and their spouses [are] in jail now, [even though] I and they have done nothing. I don’t know how my wife and children may survive. As for myself, I am still living [in] uncertainty abroad because of financial instability. Every time when I get scolded by the manager for not being concentrated on my position at the factory where I am working, I really feel regret for not having followed my friends that day. I was convinced of the truth of Tursun Memet’s words about death.”

A Chinese police image of a vehicle destroyed during the Bugur attacks. From Weibo.

I wondered how the fighters had the courage to carry out such a desperate action, with the certainty it would end with their death, while so many are scared even to gather for peaceful demonstrations in the West. Were these fighters provoked, I asked the eyewitness: “Is there any concrete incident that caused these attacks, such as illegal house searches, detaining religious figures, or bullying street vendors?” He replied, “All these things are part of the daily life of the Uyghurs. If these events could trigger conflict, there would be rebellions in 1,000 places every day.”

“So, is it true that their goal was to enter heaven?” I asked. “That was only a part of the goal. The main goal was to make their voices heard and attract international attention,” he answered.

Based on this witness’s impressions, the quotes from the insurgent’s leader, and my own observations from my meetings in many years with fighters on this front, I believe I can summarize the fighters’ goals as follows. The main purpose of the Bugur insurgents was to inform the Chinese state that they would not accept its regime. They wanted to inspire the Uyghur people by demonstrating that they had sons and daughters ready to sacrifice their lives for liberation from China.

They also wanted to let the international community know that there is a place in the world called East Turkestan, Uyghurs are not members of the Chinese family, and are the legitimate owners of a land that has been occupied. The action was an organized and planned attack whose aim was to sow seeds for a future liberation of East Turkestan, knowing it will be a long journey.

The insurgents’ attacks against Yangxia Police Station captured by a surveillance camera. From Weibo.

Like many Uyghur insurgents in the last two decades, at least twenty percent of the group consisted of women. Ayshegul, the wife of Tursun Memet, was among the forty insurgents who died. I wondered how a leader can persuade his wife to die with him in the battlefield, and interrogated the eyewitness.

From his tears and words, I concluded that Tursun Memet was not a religious scholar who could illustrate the otherworld as attractive as a preacher would do. His major in college was architecture, and he had a house construction business. All his religious knowledge was earned through self-study during the time out of his work. He was not a philosopher or a politician either, who could explain international law and the good reasons of the Uyghurs.

However, he could explain the reasons for the oppression and genocide that he and his people were suffering, and indicate a road to deal with them in a honorable way. He persuaded his wife and all his friends through an appeal to honesty and patriotism.

In the end of the conversation, the witness said: “You can publish my statement, if there is something that will benefit our people. There is nothing that would justify the Chinese committing genocide.” I reassured him with these words: “In my opinion, planning and organizing an action that in the insurgent’s intention would give to Uyghurs a better future were not crimes, as China claimed.

The insurgents were sure their actions were based on their national, ethnic, and human rights. At any rate, the act of resistance by an individual or group in any form does not justify punishing an entire people. Turkey had his problems with the Kurds, Britain with the Irish IRA, Spain with Basque and other separatists. They did not punish entire populations, nor did they put millions in re-education camps.”

The insurgents were not naïve or desperate youths, as they were sometimes depicted. They were smart and mature young men and women, who correctly predicted what was going to happen in the area. They were not trying to break up a legitimate country, but to liberate their own nation from the yoke of an occupation that oppresses millions people.

Therefore, while the Bugur rebels are terrorists in China’s eyes, they are and remain heroes in my heart.


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