The Kashgar city of East Turkestan hosted a historic meeting on Nov. 12, 1933. Notable Uyghurs finally agreed on the declaration of independence after a long and arduous process. The state, which was known by the three different names “Islamic Republic of East Turkestan,” “Republic of East Turkestan,” and “Republic of Uyghuristan”, from then on would dubbed the “Islamic Republic of East Turkestan.” The founding cadres were comprised of those who closely followed global developments. Some among them were educated according to “new methods” in cities like Istanbul, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Sabit Damulla Abdulbaki, who was appointed as prime minister, especially admired the “modernization” processes in Egypt and Turkey. The founders saw Islam as the common ground and “an essential condition.” The name of the state reflected this.
The first president of the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, Khoja Niyaz, declared the five principles which would later constitute the foundational philosophy of the state:
1) All Uyghur regions are parts of the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan
2) Administration and the economy will be controlled entirely by Uyghurs
3) The oppressed peoples of East Turkestan are now completely free
4) The president will oversee the foundation of a government which aims to ensure the peace and happiness of the people
5) The Republic, with all its institutions, will work to become on par with other modernizing societies
This political formation that delighted Uyghurs was virtually a repetition of another historical experience of East Turkestan. Yakub Beg, who ruled Kokand Khanate between 1866 and 1877 and gave East Turkestan its independence, was the most recent example for the Uyghurs. Yakub Beg established relations with the Ottoman Empire, Britain and Russia and enabled sermons to be read in the name of Sultan Abdulaziz, raised the Ottoman flag, and minted coins in the name of the sultan. Although the Chinese destroyed the Kokand Khanate by military force on May 16, 1877, they did not extinguish the undying flame of independence burning in the hearts of the Uyghurs.
The Islamic Republic of East Turkestan, just like during the 1877 period, remained under Chinese pressure from the first days of 1934. Finally, when the Muslim Chinese commander Ma Zhongying captured Turfan and as a result of the intensifying conflicts, the republic became history on February 6, 1934, and Uyghur dreams of independence could not be realized.
On Nov. 12, 1944, Uyghurs once again attempted to declare independence with a new cadre and revitalized excitement. This time, the “Second East Turkestan Republic” was established in the Gulca region at the border of Kazakhstan. The Soviet Union supported the establishment of this state and provided generous military and economic assistance. The Russians, who did not support the state openly and decisively, years later found a Muslim republic established on Chinese territories favorable for their own interests.
Alihan Töre, then president of the Second East Turkestan Republic who had Uzbek origins, started to have disagreements with the Soviets. The Soviets sidelined him in 1946 and appointed Ahmetcan Kasımi who was known by his communist inclinations to replace Töre. While these developments occurred in East Turkestan, the civil war between the nationalists and communists was still raging in China. When the communists won the civil war in 1949, the Soviet Union started to strengthen their relations with Beijing. Incidentally, 11 top officials of the East Turkestan Republic lost their lives when their plane crashed into Lake Baykal on August 22, 1949, after a meeting they had with Soviet authorities in Kazakhstan. The Chinese army acted quickly after the crash and annexed East Turkestan, putting an end to the republic.
The historical experience suggests that the desire for independence never disappeared in East Turkestan. On the contrary, it is embedded in every bone of every Uyghur’s body. The Chinese government is aware of this and is therefore continuing to oppress people in the region which it calls Xinjiang. Beijing hopes that Uyghurs whom they try to reeducate in “Internment Camps”, whose religious and ethnic rights they limit, and are limited in even what they can and cannot wear, will give up their dreams of independence and become “acceptable” citizens of China. The unchanging rules of history and geography indicate that in the long run, this method will fail.
Another thing historical experience shows us is that East Turkestan has always been open to foreign interventions and has always drawn major powers’ attention. That is why all three states were short-lived and went through difficult period. In this matter we call the “Cause of East Turkestan”, it is possible to see these foreign interventions clearly. While Uyghurs are subjected to terrible treatment, the region also whets the appetite of great powers for the Chinese territories. Behind the “East Turkestan” sensitivity in the European (even Russian) and American media, it is impossible not to sense the bad-intentioned and selfish looks. This sensitive period expresses that when Chinese occupation eventually ends, East Turkestan will not be left to itself and will be attacked by ravenous wolves.
The Muslim world - on the levels of people and governments - should not let the East Turkestan issue fall from the agenda. If one day we become powerful enough to deal with this issue, the road to success comes through having an interest in the matter and being informed about its background.