Members of the worldwide community of Uyghurs rallied on Thursday in defense of their language, warning that their Turkic tongue and cultural identity are under threat from heavy-handed Chinese policies to assimilate the central Asian ethnic group.
“Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) invites all concerned individuals, human rights groups and governments to speak out against Chinese government policies aimed at undermining the linguistic rights of the Uyghur people,” the Washington-based group said in a statement.
The UHRP and other exile organizations launched International Uyghur Language Day in 2015 “to celebrate the vibrancy and richness of the Uyghur language” and celebrate contributions to humanity by Uyghur scientists, philosophers and poets, UHRP Director Omer Kanat said in a statement.
“Uyghurs are rightfully proud of these achievements and wish to secure a future for their children as speakers of Uyghur,” Kanat added.
Scholars say there are more that 10 million speakers of Uyghur, a Turkic language with similarities to Uzbek. Native speakers are concentrated in the Chinese-controlled Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, but significant numbers are also found in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
In Xinjiang, where it is an official language, Uyghur is under pressure from Chinese policies, Kanat said.
“China has implemented a series of policies that undermine the Uyghur language with the goal of establishing Chinese as the Uyghurs’ first language,” he said.
“Despite guarantees in international and domestic law, the Chinese authorities have unilaterally prioritized communication in government, commerce and education among Uyghurs toward Mandarin Chinese,” Kanat added.
Harsh new policies
Kanat took aim at what Chinese call “bilingual education” policies, which he said are undermining the Uyghur language and its official position in the region.
“Currently, everyone can see that Chinese government increasing its forceful measures to assimilate Uyghur language and identity.”
This year’s observation of language day comes amid a deepening clampdown on the Muslim Uyghur’s religious and cultural practices that has seen Beijing roll out a series of repressive policies in the Xinjiang region.
In recent weeks, Chinese authorities across Xinjiang have punished Uyghurs for trying to fast during Ramadan, forced restaurants to stay open and restricted access to mosques to discourage traditional observation of the holy month, and even gone as far as embedding Chinese officials in Uyghur homes to curb religious observance.
A related campaign, unveiled in April, declared “overly religious names”—such as Islam, Quran, Mecca, Imam, Saddam, Hajj, and Medina—were banned under the ruling Chinese Communist Party's “Naming Rules For Ethnic Minorities,” RFA’s Uyghur reported recently.
That ban, which means that any babies registered with such names would be barred from the “hukou” household registration system that gives access to health care and education, was extended to cover anyone up to the age of 16, official sources told RFA earlier this month.
China has vowed to crack down on what it calls religious extremism in Xinjiang, and regularly conducts "strike hard” campaigns including random, nighttime police raids on Uyghur households, restrictions on Islamic practices, and curbs on the culture and language of the Uyghur people, including clothing and personal appearance.
And while Beijing blames some Uyghurs for a string of violent attacks and clashes in recent years, critics say repressive domestic policies are responsible for violence that has left hundreds dead since 2009.
“We hope every Uyghur family, every single Uyghur man and woman to speak Uyghur in the International Uyghur Language Day,” Dolkun Isa, the general secretary of the World Uyghur Congress, told RFA.
“Through this kind of activities, we (resist) Chinese government’s systematically assimilationist policies on Uyghur language, culture and identity,” he said.
Reported and translated by Eset Sulayman for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.