Although pro-Tibetan rallies have been going on in Vancouver for a long time, the Uyghur community here is just now coming out of the shadows, with representatives like political refugee Omerjan Bí¶re.
Bí¶re is from the city of Kashgar in the former East Turkistan, a mostly Muslim area in China’s west, now in the vast Xinjiang region. Bí¶re wants independence from China for East Turkistan, and he allies himself with the Tibetan cause. He claims the Uyghur region has been under Chinese rule “since 1949”. China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1959 after its initial 1951 incursion into eastern Tibet.
“We support Tibetans; we are in the same situation,” Bí¶re told the Georgia Straight, standing in front of the gates at the Chinese Consulate on Granville Street during an August 7 rally. “We believe we are now being heard and one day we will get independence. Tibetans are called separatists and Uyghurs are called terrorists. The international community must understand the difference between separatist, terrorist, and freedom fighter.”
After a protest earlier the same day at the Vancouver Art Gallery, representatives from the China Human Rights Coalition, Students for a Free Tibet, and the Canada Tibet Committee, several Falun Gong practitioners, and one carrier of a fake Olympic torch marched to the Chinese Consulate, where they joined four Uyghurs waving traditional blue East Turkistan flags. Bí¶re said he was the only one who would go on record, as his friends were “scared” of reprisal.
Visibly shaking at one point as protesters filed onto the sidewalk, the lean Bí¶re yelled into the loudspeaker: “What do we want? Human rights. When do we want it? Now.”
Bí¶re said he cannot wave an East Turkistan flag in his hometown or say “East Turkistan” within earshot of Chinese government officials.
“They will shoot you,” he said.
Vancouver’s Chinese vice consul, Wang Zeliang, told the Straight that “the government of China has reiterated again and again that the human-rights situation in both Tibet and the Xinjiang region have improved a great deal.”
“We are still making great progress,” Zeliang said by phone August 12. “There is no country in the world that is perfect in the human-rights situation. We admit that in China there might be some human-rights issues, but we will work on that. They are not severe enough for those people to protest in front of the consulate. I think those people are overdoing it. They want to exaggerate it and attract more attention.”
In the mostly Muslim town of Kuqa and surrounding areas on August 12, police allegedly arrested 90 Uyghurs for a spate of bombings that left a dozen people dead, according to CBC. In an August 5 government news release posted on the Vancouver Chinese Consulate’s Web site, Xinjiang police claimed they had arrested 18 members of the “East Turkestan Islamic Movement” so far this year.
“They are trying to turn 2008 into a year of mourning and a year of terror,” Shi Dagang, Communist party secretary of Kashgar, is quoted as saying in the same release.
Tenzin Lhalungpa, president of the Vancouver chapter of the Canada Tibet Committee, urged the West to exercise caution when listening to Chinese government claims that terrorist tactics are being used.
“This incident that they are saying happened at this [Kashgar] border crossing, I think China has to show more proof,” Lhalungpa told the Straight. “The onus should be on them, because we know about manufactured trials in China and manufactured evidence. If this was really a terrorist attack—one report I heard was it was some disgruntled workers trying to make a payback. Everything in China seems to be used by China towards their own ends. This is just used to try to justify a further crackdown in Urí¼mqi and Kashgar and places like that.”
Bí¶re said he does not belong to the ETIM but noted that he is a member of the German-based pro-independence World Uyghur Congress and the Toronto-based Uyghur Canadian Society.