Xinjiang Authorities Use ‘Burial Management Centers’ to Subvert Uyghur Funeral Traditions

2018-04-19
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A file photo shows a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Xinjiang's capital Urumqi.
A file photo shows a Muslim cemetery on the outskirts of Xinjiang's capital Urumqi.
AP Photo

Authorities in Hotan (in Chinese, Hetian) prefecture, in northwest China’s Xinjiang region, are setting up “burial management centers” as part of what the Uyghur exile community say is a bid to control all aspects of life for members of their ethnic group—even the act of dying.

Recent posts on a social media channel used by the mostly-Muslim Uyghur community included a photo of a notice informing residents of the construction of a center in Keriye (Yutian) county’s Arish township to conduct the burial of local residents.

Officials from two different counties in Hotan told RFA’s Uyghur Service that similar centers had been established in areas under their administration, although they were unsure of what they were being used for, and suggested authorities planned to build additional facilities throughout the prefecture.

The head of Urchi township in Hotan’s Qaraqash (Moyu) county said she had heard “about a month ago” that a burial management center had been constructed and would be “opening soon.”

“I only heard that ıt wıll be openıng soon, but I don’t know why ıt ıs opening or what they do there,” she added.

The ruling Communist Party secretary of No. 1 Village, in Guma (Pishan) county’s Piyalma township, told RFA that a burial management center “opened in July 2017” within the county.

When asked the reason why the center was built, the secretary said that it “[will help us comply with] the four different orders, in order to make it convenient for us” officials, without providing further details.

Officials in Xinjiang routinely refer to four guidelines they are to follow when governing in the region—strengthening propaganda according to the promotion of Chinese-style religion, encouraging residents to self-report and criticize their own behavior, opposing religious extremism, and expressing gratitude to the Communist Party.

While the officials did not explain the specific function of the burial management centers, members of the Uyghur exile community with links to the area told RFA that authorities are using them to subvert Uyghur ethnic traditions and remove the religious context from funerary rites.

Since April 2017, Uyghurs accused of harboring “strong religious views” and “politically incorrect” views have been jailed or detained in political re-education camps throughout Xinjiang, where members of the ethnic group have long complained of pervasive discrimination, religious repression, and cultural suppression under Chinese rule.

Zumret, a Uyghur political analyst based in Norway, said that in addition to targeting for detention Uyghurs who assert their religious identity, Chinese authorities now seek to take control of the last private aspects of Uyghur lives by regulating their burial practices.

“The Chınese have burial management centers from where corpses are sent for cremation before beıng burıed, and this is the type of procedure the Chınese government wants the Uyghurs to adhere to,” she said.

According to Uyghur tradition, the dead must be cleansed by a member of the local community who is versed in religious knowledge before relatives say a final farewell. Bodies are then transported by “jinaze,” a coffin-like carriage, to a nearby mosque for a closure prayer.

Afterwards, an imam recites a sermon on the meaning of life and death, reminding the congregation that everyone eventually meets their creator, regardless of what they have done on earth. The body is then transported to a cemetery for burial, and a week later, the family holds a mourning ceremony which is attended by members of the community.

“For us Uyghurs, ıt ıs extremely ımportant because we believe that we must send our departed away with a pure mınd on theır fınal journey, and as Muslims, we recite Islamic prayers during the burial service to purify the body and soul,” Zumret said.

“The aım of the Chınese government ıs to suffocate us ın every aspect of our daily lıfe by restricting our cultural and relıgıous tradıtıons, which often leads people to rebel—and that gıves the authorities a legıtımate reason to respond with deadly force.”

Dealing with camp effects

Abdurahman Hesen, a Uyghur busınessman who resıdes ın Turkey, told RFA that the burial management centers are also being set up to deal with the effects the re-education camps have had on the local population.

He said that the centers provide a convenient way for authorities to deal with the bodies of Uyghurs who have died under questionable circumstances while in the camps.

“Havıng a burıal management center ın every vıllage ıs a way to control the services for the dead, because when a person dıes ın detention or a prıson, the authorities [usually] do not return the corpse to the family,” Hesen said.

“When the service ıs carried out by the government, the family doesn’t know what took place or where the body was ınterred. In the future, we may not be able to fınd the graves of our fathers and grandfathers. Thıs ıs completely unethıcal and unacceptable.”

Hesen said that the centers also arrange funerals in communities where most of the adult men—who would normally assist with the ceremonies—are in detention.

“There are very few young people left, as the majorıty of them are beıng held ın re-education camps and there aren’t enough left to carry the bodıes to the graveyard,” he said.

The Communist Party had never previously interfered in Uyghur funerals due to the sensitivity of the tradition, Hesen added, but by using the centers to take over burial services, authorities are now able to remove one more situation in which local religious leaders hold more influence over residents than the government.

“By controlling the whole process, it prevents Uyghur religious figures from preaching on the meaning of life and death, heaven and hell, and thereby controls every aspect of Uyghur life, from birth to death,” he said.

Vast network

China's central government authorities have not publicly acknowledged the existence of re-education camps in Xinjiang, and the number of inmates kept in each facility remains a closely guarded secret, but local officials in many parts of Xinjiang have in RFA telephone interviews forthrightly described sending significant numbers of Uyghurs to the camps and even described overcrowding in some facilities.

Maya Wang of the New York-based Human Rights Watch told The Guardian in January that estimates of Xinjiang residents who had spent time in the camps went as high as 800,000, while at least one Uyghur exile group estimates that up to 1 million Uyghurs have been detained throughout the region since April 2017, and some activists say nearly every Uyghur household has been affected by the campaign.

Prior reporting by RFA’s Uyghur Service found that as arrests in Xinjiang increased around the sensitive 19th Communist Party Congress in Beijing in October, the region’s re-education camps have been inundated by detainees, who are forced to endure cramped and squalid conditions in the facilities.

Last month, authorities in Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture’s Yopurgha (Yuepuhu) county told RFA that a 17-year-old Uyghur boy named Yaqupjan Naman, who was detained for “traveling overseas,” had died of unknown causes at a local re-education camp. His father was not provided with the cause of the boy’s death and was forced to bury his body under police supervision, the sources said.

Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Alim Seytoff. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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