Nonviolent activism around the Olympic Games: History and lessons learned

This article was originally published at on 24 November 2015 and is available here.

Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion.

A Tiananmen Square-themed Olympic logo. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.Bringing the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to act on human rights has been the product of decades of international and local resistance, from boycotting South Africa in 1968 to obstructing China’s torch relay in 2008. The key message of this resistance has consistently been that the Olympics is more than just a sporting event. Many campaigns have used the Games to draw attention to myriad rights violations ranging from minority discrimination and the loss of indigenous land to the treatment of political prisoners. There is an opportunity for civil society to build on its achievements, in particular by taking on a proactive role in holding future host countries more accountable.

The empowering spirit of the Olympics motto “Faster, Higher, Stronger” is increasingly out of step with the global decline in freedom and assault on human rights defenders over the past several decades. These problems are sometimes pronounced in Olympics host countries.

When the IOC votes to award cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting ongoing persecution. Until recently, the IOC could brush aside calls from the international community to acknowledge its place within the politics of repression. Today, that is no longer the case.

Indeed, following decades of pressure from civil society groups and activists, the IOC in October 2014 updated host city contracts with a reference to human rights. The 2024 bid — to be announced in September 2017 — will be the IOC’s first official opportunity to demonstrate its newfound stated commitment. And yet the entity is already coming under criticism for not going far enough with the new group of potential cities between now and 2024 — a sign that public opinion on just how “apolitical” the Olympics can really be has shifted.

The 1936 Berlin Olympics

When the IOC votes to award the Olympics to cities like Beijing or Sochi, it is partially complicit in legitimizing repression and permitting the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders.

The history of the Olympics reveals its contentious nature and illustrates how civil resistance has shaped or been shaped by the Games. The narrative naturally begins in 1936 in Berlin. While Jesse Owens’ glory is widely remembered, what is not so well known is just how close the United States came to boycotting Hitler’s Olympics.

Concern that rising anti-Jewish discrimination should preclude Germany from hosting the 1936 Olympics began in earnest in 1933. In 1934, American Olympic Committee President Avery Brundage was invited to Germany to judge for himself whether or not Jewish citizens of the Third Reich faced discrimination. With no expertise in the matter, Brundage was a poor choice for such an important fact-finding mission and proved pliable in Hitler’s hands. In a trip that was deplored by the US ambassador to Germany, in Berlin Brundage was wined and dined. Following his trip, he argued that sporting events should not “interfere in the internal political, religious or racial affairs of any country or group.” A few months later, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping German Jews of citizenship and other basic rights.

Ignoring substantive grounds for concern, and the growing domestic movement for a boycott, Brundage succeeded in convincing the AAU to support US participation in Berlin. Advocates of a boycott were narrowly defeated.

Under pressure, Apartheid South Africa drops out of 1968 Games

Smith and Carlos raised fists in Black Power salute at 1968 Olympics in symbolic act of civil resistance. Thirty years later, Avery Brundage would again come under fire leading up to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

Formed in 1967, the Olympics Project for Human Rights (OPHR) was a central actor utilizing the Olympics spotlight to expose widespread, systematic racism and exploitation of black athletes in the United States. The organization had five central demands, among them the removal of Avery Brundage from his then role as the president of the US Olympic Committee, and the denial of Apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia from participating in the 1968 Olympics.

Brundage had disregarded previous demands that South Africa be banned from participating in the 1960 Olympics following the Sharpeville Massacre in March of that year. During the massacre, South African security forces opened fire on a nonviolent demonstration of some 5,000 people. For OPHR, allowing South Africa to participate in 1968 would be tantamount to failing to revoke the 1936 Games from Berlin. They announced a boycott.

 Enthusiasts for the boycott included Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who, months before his assassination, offered his absolute support saying, “This is a protest and a struggle against racism and injustice and that is what we are working to eliminate in our organization and in our total struggle.”

OPHR succeeded in one of its demands. Under the threat of boycott and related international mobilization, the IOC eventually advised South Africa not to participate. During the 1968 Games, in a well-known instance, OPHR members Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their fists in the Black Power salute after receiving Gold and Bronze medals — in solidarity with the broader civil resistance campaign (see image).

In this way, OPHR also succeeded in establishing a repertoire for activists to utilize the spotlight of the Olympics to draw attention to oppressive conditions within host countries and also to more universal grievances.

A new millennium for the Olympics?

Activism around the 2008 Beijing Olympics was built on a similar repertoire of international mobilization to draw attention to widespread human rights violations within the host country.

When I first traveled to China in 2006, especially in Beijing, one could not escape banners proclaiming China’s motto for the Games, “同一个世界,同一个梦想,” (One World, One Dream), as China hoped to leverage the Games for increased soft power and a projection of a “harmonious society.” Two years later, this narrative was challenged at many stops along the international Olympics Torch Relay.

The torch was lit in Greece, on 24 March 2008, about a week after a security crackdown on what had begun as a nonviolent demonstration in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The demonstration resulted in an unknown number of Tibetan deaths and detentions. Images of crimson-clad monks surrounded and beaten by Chinese police shocked international audiences. For many around the world, it was the first they learned of widespread human rights concerns in China.

There were a few scattered incidents along the route but the first major demonstration took place on 6 April in London. Free Tibet flags and placards voicing myriad human rights concerns contrasted with Chinese flags and “One China” supporters. In similar rhetoric as Brundage’s toward the Berlin Olympics, Beijing torch relay spokesperson Qu Yingpu told the BBC, responding to events in England, that, “This is not the right time, the right platform, for any people to voice their political views.”

Other organized nonviolent actions in Paris, San Francisco, Southern China and elsewhere succeeded in interrupting the Torch Relay, drawing major international attention to a number of human rights issues. Sadly however, the international demonstrations ultimately had little concrete impact on the 2008 Games. What’s more, China has since then come to represent an even bigger missed opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate commitment to upholding human rights.

Since President Xi Jinping came to power in March 2013, human rights organizations have documented over 1,800 cases of arbitrary detention. A new criminal law along with legislation on national security and NGO management have increasingly constrained Chinese citizens from exercising their rights. Torture and enforced disappearances remain a state practice. Notwithstanding this regime’s deplorable track record, the IOC went ahead this July with awarding the 2022 Winter Olympic Games to Beijing.

Tibetan rights protesters come face to face with pro-China counter-demonstrators along the torch route in San Francisco.

No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”

At the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, the dominant narrative for many focused on the Olympic Games as an institution, as a corrupt or repressive symbol.

In 2010, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now reported it was an historic convergence as indigenous rights defenders and poverty and civil liberties activists joined together under coalition titles such as the “2010 Welcoming Committee” and the “Olympics Resistance Network” to protest the Games and the some $1 billion dollars spent on police and security. Advocates of broad-ranging issues from women’s rights and rights of the homeless to anti-war and globalization also took part in the demonstrations. The Seattle Times traced parallels in coalition formation and other tactics in Vancouver back to the 1999 anti-globalization movement against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, my own introduction to civil resistance.

Despite the fact that the 2010 Games made history as the first time indigenous people were recognized as official partners, for many the rallying cry in Vancouver was still, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Vancouver activists raise concerns about land destruction and neglect for native peoples in the lead-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics.

At the 2014 Sochi Olympics, undoubtedly LGBTI issues took center stage. Many of the tactics employed by activists over the preceding decade were repeated, from international coordination in multiple cities to boycott movements. There was also a sense of rising disgust with the IOC and the Olympics in general. How could the IOC allow such a blatant violation of IOC Principle 6 on discrimination, asked the eponymous movement.

The IOC responds to direct challenges

Human Rights Watch and others outlined the need for the IOC to change in a 2014 submission to the “Olympic Agenda 2020.” This included media freedom, labor rights, freedom of expression and association, and nondiscrimination based on race, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. ” Too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” 

In a February 2015 open letter to IOC President Thomas Bach of the Sports and Rights Alliance (SRA) wrote, “As you know, too often major sports events have seen people forcibly evicted from their homes to make way for infrastructure, workers exploited, campaigners locked up, the environment damaged beyond repair and notoriously opaque bidding processes.” SRA identified the need for concrete and measurable indicators in the future host city bidding process.

In late 2014, the IOC added a human rights clause, meaning countries must meet minimum standards to be awarded host. The problem is, the IOC isn’t set up to be a human rights monitoring body. It will need help, from IOC member countries and civil society.

This is a good step forward and should be lauded, with caution. Whereas countless public figures have insisted that the Olympics be kept “apolitical” for decades, nonviolent action and civil society together have succeeded in revealing the hollowness of such a notion. But without concrete action, the IOC may inadvertently continue legitimizing repressive regimes.

Eyes on 2024 and beyond

Ongoing innovation in civil resistance and organizations such as Principle 6 and the SRA have contributed to forcing the IOC to recognize its place within the politics of repression. Decades of civil resistance succeeded in shifting the narrative.

Nevertheless, the IOC lacks monitoring and enforcement mechanisms, other than the threat of refusal to award host city status. Human rights defenders and civil society organizations should take this on as a new objective in their work around the Olympics.

These actors would benefit from tactical innovation that engages with the IOC’s updated Charter in a new, more proactive and direct way. In addition to many of the previous tactics such as boycotts or collective action, this will also at times require less disruptive actions. For example, civil resisters should deepen coalitions with human rights law practitioners, especially those most skilled in practical fact-finding and reporting. Different tactics can be combined, but they must be done so as part of a broadly inclusive grand strategy that aims to hold the IOC accountable to its recently stated embrace of human rights. If the IOC is sincere, it should welcome such civil society participation and monitoring at all phases. If it is unwilling to do so, then it makes itself vulnerable to such visible, popular nonviolent actions as those chronicled in this article.

The Truth About Myanmar’s New Discriminatory Laws

This article was originally published 26 August 2015 at The Diplomat. Available here.

Last Thursday, Myanmar’s parliament approved the remaining two of four “Protection of Race and Religion” bills. ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chairperson Charles Santiago prefers to call them the “Race and Religion Discrimination bills.” Their passage—which would allow local governments to impose a host of repressive measures—comes at a time of ongoing racial and religious discrimination and violence, part of a concerning trend in systematic Rohingya persecution. It is only more alarming as it coincides with the widespread disenfranchisement of previously registered Rohingya voters, including former parliamentarian U Shwe Maung.

These bills are inconsistent with international norms and standards and represent a clear violation of Myanmar’s obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Myanmar is a party to both conventions. The bills are likely to not only legitimize anti-Muslim sentiment but also provide a legal framework for increasing discrimination of Rohingya.

The package of laws has been a long time coming. They were first proposed following the establishment of the nationalist Buddhist organization known as Ma Ba Tha, which presented them as a draft to President Thein Sein in mid-2013. In December 2014, the laws were tabled for parliamentary debate beginning in January. Civil society and the international human rights community campaigned against their adoption and encouraged the Government of Myanmar to observe its human rights obligations rather than succumbing to nationalist hysteria.

Despite such concerns, in May the Population Control Healthcare Bill was the first to be approved. UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar,Yanghee Lee cautioned that the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills “risk deepening discrimination against minorities and setting back women’s rights in Myanmar.”

The bill grants regional officials the ability to establish 36-month birth spacing for target groups. The bill lacks human rights safeguards and raises serious concerns for abuse against Rohingya Muslims, who have already been subjected to decades of similarly abusive local orders.

Muslim couples that wish to marry must obtain official approval, which can sometimes take years to secure and require bribes. The Two Child Policy requires them to sign an agreement that they will not have more than two children, under threat of fine or imprisonment. The policy has led to amateur abortions that threaten women’s lives, influenced the number of women refugees, and led to the birth of blacklisted children who may never be registered, explains Engy Abdelkader, an expert on freedom of religion with the OSCE. The CRC requires birth registration and establishes the right to a nationality and identity, noting that the state is obligated to ensure these rights “in particular where the child would otherwise be stateless.”

The desire to control Muslim populations in Myanmar comes from the widespread belief in the Buddhist-majority country that Muslim communities have exceedingly high birthrates and are planning a population takeover. However, as Abdelkader points out, based on official government data, researchers at Harvard University have revealed that Rohingya actually have one of the country’s lowest population growth rates. Unconvinced by such data, Ma Ba Tha founder and ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu continues to infuse his Buddhist millenarian sermons with narratives of Muslim population growth, and the forced conversion or widespread rape of Buddhist women.

In July, parliament passed the Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Bill, which requires Buddhist women and men from other religions who wish to marry to register their intention publicly. They may only get married if there are no objections. It will apply retroactively to existing unions who must register as interfaith marriages. This violates the universally recognized rights to marriage and privacy, as well as equal protection of the law by applying only to Buddhist women and non-Buddhist men. It is a blatant attempt to curb interfaith marriages says Phil Robertson, deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch.

The justification for protecting Buddhist women in marriage appears to arise from a gender discriminatory narrative that equates women with purity and assigns a patriarchal society with the task of protecting a Buddhist women’s purity at the expense of her agency.

In August, parliament approved the final two bills, the Religious Conversion Bill and the Monogamy Bill. The conversion bill requires anyone who chooses to change their religion to apply with a district level “Registration Board,” submit to an interview and a 90-day waiting period. Such restrictions violate the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and the right to freely have or adopt religion. It is an assault on privacy, also found in the monogamy bill, which targets religious minorities who are often seen as sexual deviants.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least the most recent bills are still awaiting final signature by President Thein Sein. As the November election approaches he will likely come under increasing pressure, along with the rest of his USDP Party, from Ma Ba Tha to enact them into law.

Throughout the drafting period and especially once the package of bills was introduced to parliament, Ma Ba Tha was active in campaigning for their enactment. In October, U Wirathu organized thousands in Mandalay to demand the passage of the bills. May Sabai Phyu, a human rights defender and member of the Kachin ethnic minority, revealed that Ma Ba Tha challenged parliamentarians who did not approve the bills. Senior monks told their congregations not to vote for those who did not support the bills. Some critics were labeled “traitors” and at least four civil society leaders reported receiving death threats.

Article 364 of Myanmar’s Constitution forbids the abuse of religion for political purposes, and several sections of the Penal Code criminalize deliberate assaults on religious feelings and the incitement of hatred or violence against racial or religious groups. However, there has been no investigation into these activities.

One problem that remains seemingly unanswered, as pointed out by Amnesty International and the International Commission of Jurists, is whether and how the bills would apply to non-citizens. This is a particular concern for the Rohingya, who have been denied citizenship and subjected to unofficial discriminatory local orders for decades.

When asked whether non-citizens living in the country would be burdened with the requirements under the religious conversion or the marriage bill, U Win Mra, Chairman of the Myanmar National Human Rights Commission, merely stated “that it is a very complicated thing, which the state must consider carefully.” The inability of the national human rights commission to conclusively dissuade concerns that the law would disproportionately target non-citizens raises serious concerns about implementation.

For Wai Wai Nu, a Rohingya rights defender and founder of Women Peace Network Arakan, there is little uncertainty. For her, the central government’s intent with the adoption of the “Protection of Race and Religion” bills is precisely to legalize discrimination.

Against Letpadaung: copper mining in Myanmar and the struggle for human rights

 This article was originally published at OpenDemocracy on 3 August 2015. Available here.

Credit: (All rights reserved).

The Letpadaung copper mine in the Sagaing Region of central Myanmar has become a major fault line in the struggle for human rights in that country. It is also emblematic of a global problem: the damage caused by exploitative resource extraction coupled with impunity for state violence.

Although the complex which houses the mine is some 20 years old, it has attracted increasing resistance since Myanmar began its ostensible transition away from strict military rule in 2011. Fed up with massive forced relocation and environmental degradation, residents have taken advantage of gradual political liberalization to begin staging demonstrations at the mine. But state brutality promptly tramples these actions, including at least one police assault on civil resisters — civilians — using military weapons. Abusive state officials have escaped prosecution while activists have been sentenced for exercising their fundamental rights.

Contention around the project — and especially police treatment of those engaging in nonviolent civil resistance to put an end to it — has grown into a real challenge for President Thein Sein’s rhetoric of civilian government and the development of rule of law. How the situation is eventually resolved will be a serious barometer for democratic transition in Myanmar.

But already its unraveling has revealed the potential for several innovations in rights defense in Myanmar. These innovations include increasing regional networking to facilitate deeper exchange between human rights defenders in neighbouring countries engaged in similar struggles, and developing more sophisticated advocacy and lobbying skills for drawing on the support of the international community. Domestic civil resistance can benefit both from the development of a culture of litigation and from a stronger network of professional human rights lawyers.

How civil resistance and litigation converged

Thein Sein, President of Myanmar. Demotix/Alexander Widding. All rights reserved.

Following a police crackdown on several hundred monks, students and farmers nonviolently protesting the Letpadaung mine in November 2012, an independent investigation by a group of Burmese lawyers and the US-based human rights organization Justice Trust revealed that the police had used white phosphorous grenades against the nonviolent resisters — a chemical weapon of complicated legality under international law. The monks, many shielding the other protesters, suffered the worst injuries: deep burns and lasting pain. “There was something specific about the particular fire,” one of the monk organizers, U Teikkha Nyana, told a group organized by several human rights organizations at Harvard Law School this past April.

This assault strengthened the ties between two groups — civil resisters and human rights lawyers — that have become increasingly inseparable fronts in the struggle for democratic transition in Myanmar. With modest political liberalization, and a generally decreased risk of lengthy prison terms, more Burmese lawyers are willing to take on potentially sensitive rights cases.

Following long periods of hospitalization, victims of the violent repression were finally in a place to embark upon the challenge of holding perpetrators accountable. On 11 March 2015, a group of monks led by U Teikkha Nyana filed criminal and civil suits against Home Minister Lieutenant General Ko Ko, who ordered the crackdown, and others. The case is a “fight for justice and to highlight human rights violations and the lack of rule of law in Myanmar,” Aung Thein, a lawyer involved with the case, explained to me at the same meeting in April.

Monks have become increasingly common litigants in Myanmar, although sometimes causing major polemics such as the ultra-nationalist monk U Wirathu. Civil resistance can help weaker groups increase their leverage over oppressors, while rights lawyers can serve to both maintain activists’ legitimacy and offer some protection against arbitrary abuse. Legal procedures force the state to articulate its persecution in legal terms. When the state clumsily insists on the legality of arbitrary persecution of civil resisters, for example, it often produces a backfire effect and further delegitimizes the state’s position.

On 24 March, the monks’ charges against the Home Minister and police were rejected on the grounds that no lawsuit can be filed against officials who are operating in good faith — a blow to hopes of institutionalizing accountability. Nevertheless, I have been told further legal challenges are likely to follow.

Meanwhile, protests spread as repression intensifies

Police violently evict farmers working near Letpadaung copper mine in 2013. Flickr/Han Win Aung. Some rights reserved.

Despite the police crackdown, demonstrations continued at Letpadaung and began to swell around the country as others joined in solidarity, directing their resistance toward the Chinese companies involved in exploitative environmental projects in Myanmar.

Small outbursts at the Chinese embassy in Yangon have continued since November 2013, the one-year anniversary of the violent crackdown on monks. At that time, Tin Htut Paing, a leader of the youth movement Generation Wave, burned a Chinese flag in front of the embassy. He was charged with violating Myanmar’s Penal Code and the Law on Peaceful Assembly and detained.

The next year, demonstrating with the “Black Campaign” students, Tin Htut Paing was arrested again for protesting outside of the embassy along with five others. His lawyer Robert San Aung explained that the six protesters were being charged disproportionately for exercising their freedom of expression.

The group of activists was convicted and sentenced to four years and four months in a May 2015 trial condemned by the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva based organization that promotes human rights through the rule of law, and others. Amnesty International called for their immediate and unconditional release while others asserted that the convictions seriously tainted the legal system in Myanmar.

Naw Ohn Hla, one of the women convicted, said she would continue to fight for others’ rights as soon as she is freed but assumed that the government deliberately gave them lengthy sentences to keep them imprisoned during the countrywide general elections in November 2015. The next day, the court added hard labour to the sentence.

Strategic opening for international diffusion

Myanmar protestors in Yangon. Demotix/Manaw Htun. All rights reserved.

The mine at Letpadaung is a joint venture between Wanbao, a subsidiary of Norinco, a Chinese industrial manufacturing company that also specializes in high-tech weapons, and the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company. This is a reminder of the important role foreign firms and governments play in developing or hindering the rule of law in Myanmar. This is not just about China.

A 2015 Amnesty International report criticized the Canadian firm Ivanhoe Mines, now Turquoise Hill Resources, and others for profiting from a corrupt or unregulated legal climate for resource extraction in Myanmar.

Ivanhoe Mines was involved in the Monywa Complex since the joint venture began in 1996. Between April 2003 and January 2005, it may have violated Canadian, US, and European sanctions for large amounts of copper sales to blacklisted military firms.  Amnesty has called for Canadian authorities and the securities commission to investigate.

In 2007, Ivanhoe Mines claimed that it was divesting from the Burmese mine and transferred its shares to an “independent third party,” the independence of which has been contested by Amnesty.

A 2009 cable published by WikiLeaks shows Ivanhoe was simultaneously negotiating with Burmese and Chinese buyers but was eventually forced to sell to the Burmese state-owned ME-1 for $100 million, on the grounds that ME-1 had already agreed to sell the mine to the Chinese interest for $250 million plus $50 million in consulting fees and $100 million in upgrades. The sale was finalized in 2011.

Turquoise Hill is currently invested in two mining projects in Mongolia. In May 2015, a deal to sell its shares in the underperforming SouthGobi Mine to a Chinese firm fell through. Meanwhile the company has faced domestic opposition at another of its mine sites. Noted in a recent report by the Minority Rights Group, the Oyu Tolgoi Mine has sparked resistance by local herders, environmental and minority rights groups over the destructive impact of the mine on the surrounding landscape. The parallels to Letpadaung don’t need elaboration.

In their 2015 World Report, Human Rights Watch commented on the “enormous collective impact on the human rights of vulnerable communities worldwide” of Canada’s mining industry. HRW expressed concern that the Canadian government neither regulates nor monitors the respect for human rights of Canadian firms overseas. In 2009, Canada did establish a corporate social responsibility advisory, but has yet to empower it with oversight or investigatory powers over Canadian firms operating domestically or in foreign countries, such as Myanmar.

Broadening resistance strategies

Myanmar will continue to open up to more foreign trade and investment in the coming years. And the government is currently in the process of negotiating a contentious Investment Law. In early July, ICJ hosted a workshop with Myanmar’s Attorney General and others to discuss the investment law and protection of human rights in the country. Daniel Aguirre, ICJ Legal Adviser, commented that, “Myanmar needs to update its regulatory system to protect the environment and human rights.”

At the same time, civil society and human rights defenders may consider updating their strategies of resistance and rights defense. A targeted boycott of foreign-made products from host countries responsible for exploitive industries is one possible next step for national coordination of resistance. Increasing civil society pressure on the political and financial elite of select countries has its limits, as long as Myanmar protects elite interests over those of Myanmar citizens. Resistance to exploitative foreign involvement will require improving transnational activism and communication with activists engaged in similar struggles abroad. Ideally, it would also entail coordinating with networks of human rights defenders in countries whose foreign presence is targeted by civil resisters in Myanmar. This requires financial and logistical support.

International funders interested in supporting rule of law development in Myanmar will play an important role in regional exchange. Organizations like Amnesty and Frontline Defenders have long provided platforms for this type of exchange, but the demand is growing. Imagine the learning potential of combining activists and lawyers who have struggled against Letpadaung with their Mongolian counterparts who have resisted Oyu Tolgoi, or with the organizers of the thousands of Tibetans who have resisted the destruction of sacred or farming land by mining operations across western China. There are other transferable case studies for Myanmar from rights defenders around the world, such as Oscar Olivera who organized the successful resistance campaign against exploitive privatization in Cochabamba, Bolivia by the US construction firm Bechtel.

The upcoming Universal Periodic Review of Myanmar in November, wherein the Human Rights Council will review Myanmar on the totality of its human rights record, presents an opportunity for rights defenders from Myanmar and around the world. It might also provide a platform for putting pressure on other governments to examine their human rights records in Myanmar.

The UPR is a truly unique opportunity for universalizing domestic rights campaigns and forging links with supportive foreign governments. Unfortunately, reports indicate Home Minister Ko Ko will lead Myanmar’s delegation, seriously calling into question the country’s commitment to the process.

Building bridges to broaden tactics of nonviolent resistance

Protesting outside of embassies or burning country flags draws attention but is insufficient for sustainable coalition formation. To guarantee greater accountability for foreign companies operating in Myanmar, and the state officials tasked with protecting the interests of the local and international elite, domestic human rights defenders can target their activism at those firms’ countries of origin and strengthen their networks among human rights defenders in those countries. To complement these efforts, foreign governments with embassies in Myanmar can ensure they are accessible for civil society and guarantee they will not prioritize economic or political alignment with the elite at the expense of substantive commitments to human rights and the rule of law. But international action can only augment domestic mobilization; it cannot replace it.

In the narrative above we see the importance of bridging nonviolent civil resistance with the community of human rights lawyers. While the rule of law is barely poking through the soil in Myanmar, the country has made limited advances in terms of domestic and international law. While such concessions may be more to placate the international community toward abandoning sanctions and stimulating investment, they have created openings for challenging oppression. Addressing resistance to Letpadaung, Ant Maung, a popular poet, commented, “Five years ago this would have been impossible; such a movement would have been cruelly crushed.”

Myanmar has a long way to go but, as Aung Thein noted at our meeting in April, it is time to nurture a domestic culture of litigation. Belief in the rule of law must come from below and strategic litigation should be calculated alongside other tactics of resistance. Through greater training, made increasingly possible by support from international organizations, Myanmar civil society will gain more rights awareness, allowing for more informed rights demands.

At the same time, just as the international community must perform due diligence when supporting top-down initiatives or large-scale investment, it must be cautious in supporting bottom-up programming. Sitting in his apartment in Yangon, Robert San Aung, the idiosyncratic human rights lawyer and six-time political prisoner under the ancien régime, shared his concern with me. Entrepreneurs have emerged to take advantage of legal aid and development funds, just as in other contexts of post-conflict or development, which is upsetting the network of nascent domestic lawyers. For San Aung, funders truly interested in supporting human rights in Myanmar must ensure checks and balances, which can be achieved through deeper engagement on the ground, meaning more language officers and interactions with civil society.

Arguably the way forward for rights defenders in Myanmar is to continue augmenting domestic rights defense with transnational activism and international law, and to continue finding ways to take advantage of the same international opening that has benefited the government.

In Myanmar, students test the sincerity of democratic transition

Originally published at openDemocracy on 10 June 2015. Also available here.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

Students demand change in Myanmar. Creative Commons. Some rights reserved.

In Myanmar, as university students around the world begin to exalt their summer freedom, a national student movement continues to demand greater political freedom. At the end of May 2015 Myanmar’s parliament was still discussing proposed amendments to a National Education Law put forth by a coalition of student groups. The students have expressed their concern over the lack of academic freedom and the centralized control inherent in the law, which was passed in September 2014. Since its adoption, students and other activists have been campaigning around the country. In many ways, the struggle around education reform can be seen as a prism through which to assess the sincerity of democratic transition in Myanmar today.

It began in March 2014 with the release of the draft law. Later, a national coalition of student groups issued an 11 point manifesto. They demanded, among other things, student representation in enacting education legislation, teaching that ensures the freedom of thought, multilingual education for ethnic minorities, inclusion of children with disabilities, and the expansion of compulsory education from primary school to middle school. In November 2014, students in Yangon, the capital, issued a statement explaining that if the government failed to negotiate within 60 days there would be nationwide mobilization.

With little progress toward their demands, on January 20, 2015, they held true to their word. Several hundred students from Mandalay and elsewhere began marching the some 400 miles to the capital to demand negotiation. Less than a week later the government agreed to hold four-party talks. As a show of faith several of the groups marching on Yangon agreed to halt their processions. However, after only a few days the talks stalled. More than 250 civil society organizations pressed for their resumption and several protests were staged around the capital in solidarity with the marching students.

Sustained pressure appeared successful in mid-February when government negotiators surprisingly agreed to the students’ demands. A few days later a new version of the law was sent to parliament for discussion.

Throughout the months of demonstrations students overwhelmingly maintained nonviolent discipline with one noting: “we don’t have any weapons, not even a needle, so if there is a crackdown we will just have to bow our heads and face it.”

A tradition of student activism

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

These students are following a long tradition of student-led nonviolent civil resistance dating back to pre-independence Myanmar. Not long after General Ne Win’s March 1962 coup, students at Yangon University began demonstrating against the military dictatorship and the sudden loss of academic freedom. In early July that year, the military cracked down savagely, massacring between 100 and 1000 students and dynamiting the student union building, the epicentre of student activism since the colonial period. There would be no student unions again until 2010.

In 1974, following the death of U Thant, the United Nations Secretary General from 1961 to 1971, the regime denied him a burial with honours. Thousands of students and monks seized his body and marched to Yangon University, where they buried him close to where the student union stood. The armed forces soon drove tanks onto the university campus and exhumed his body. Upwards of 4,500 students were arrested in the ensuing melee, and some 100 were killed.

Student mobilization was salient in the better-known 1988 pro-democracy movement from March to August. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock calls this period the “Rangoon Spring” — Rangoon is the former name for Yangon — in reference to the 1968 Prague Spring, a brief period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia that ended with military intervention. Amnesty International even established a short-lived office in Yangon at this time. But by September the state responded with pure brutality. The military assumed control under General Saw Maung and the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). More than 3,000 were killed by the end of the month. Human Rights Watch’s Asia Director, Brad Adams, has called the ongoing impunity for these mass killings an unaddressed wound challenging the rhetoric of reform.

The inspiration and guidance of what became known as the 88 Generation would inspire incremental episodes of resistance and repression that followed. And in 2007, scattered demonstrations that began in April spread around the country reaching around 100,000 demonstrators in Yangon on September 24. This episode is known as the Saffron Revolution, in reference to the overwhelming presence of bright orange and red-clad Buddhist monks among the demonstrators. The spread of images, made possible by social media, of police and military savagely beating monks contributed to the international outcry and condemnation of the regime. In addition to monks, students made up sizeable numbers, as new student organizations such as Generation Wave, inspired by the 88 generation, began to organize and innovate strategies of resistance.

The government loses patience

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar police stage crackdown. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Despite a long tradition of student-organized civil resistance, those who began in November 2014 exhibited a stark difference with their predecessors. They were engaging in collective action in an ostensibly democratizing Myanmar.

In November 2010 Myanmar held its first general election since 1990, although they took place amid concerns of intimidation and corruption, as well as laws that strongly favored the military. International election monitors and foreign journalists were banned. Anyone serving a prison sentence was barred from party membership, a questionable regulation in light of the more than 2,000 political prisoners. In April, Lieutenant General Thein Sein resigned from the military and formed the ‘civilian’ Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), absorbing several military organizations. USDP won vast Parliamentary representation. A week later Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest, although she is still banned from running in the 2015 election. In the years following, Thein Sein released hundreds of political prisoners and has presided over certain welcome legislative reforms. In response, the United States and European Union have restored diplomatic relations and lifted decades of economic sanctions.

In light of this narrative of political liberalization, one would have hoped that the negotiation of a National Education Law would comport with Thein Sein’s attempts to maintain legitimacy by appearing more sympathetic to political reform. Unfortunately, after the student’s preliminary successes at convincing the Parliament to review their demands, the trajectory began to take a familiar arc.

In February 2015, even as positive negotiations were under way in the capital, several hundred security personnel were being deployed along the route of those marching south from Mandalay. Kyaw Thet, a student from Pathein, about 60 miles from Yangon, told The Irrawaddy: “if they shoot, we will be hit… We have no plans to back down, but we want to say there is no benefit to anyone if violence is used against students. If the government agrees to our demands, we will call off our strike and go home.”

Despite the agreement at the four-party talk, it soon became clear that the Parliament would not welcome student representatives. A few days later the government warned that action would be taken and Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Ko Ko cautioned the organizers that demonstrators would be considered a threat to national stability. On February 16 two foreign freelance journalists were expelled from the country for documenting protests. In early March, police in Letpadan, about 85 miles from Yangon, surrounded the students marching from Mandalay. A tense standoff ensued with students demanding to continue, and the police, who outnumbered them 5 to 1, refusing to abandon their blockade. In Yangon, police assaulted a small group of activists on March 5 who had gathered in solidarity with those at Letpadan. Then, despite the authorities and students appearing to have reached a consensus in Letpadan, violence erupted on March 10.

In a move that was widely condemned by human rights organizations and governments, police and hired thugs, armed with truncheons and riot gear, mercilessly beat back the some 200 assembled students. Some passed out and others were badly cut from barbed wire or suffered broken bones, some were dragged into trucks, chased into the fields, or later snatched from their homes at night. The police also chased away journalists from documenting the abuse but evidence quickly spread through traditional and social media, such as the “We Support Myanmar Students” Facebook page, which, at the time of writing, has generated more than 25,000 likes. Soon afterwards, the Ministry of Information claimed to have arrested 127 people.

By truncheon or by gavel, the law as a repressive tool

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The police violence at Letpadan, although thankfully low in casualties, bears a striking similarity to the state-sponsored violence of previous military governments. It is a disturbing return to past tactics of repression, says Human Rights Watch. But what seems equally, if not more troubling, is the instrumentalization of domestic law as a repressive tactic. This is part of what Thomas Risse and Kathryn Sikkink call a tactical concession. Repressive regimes will make certain concessions such as signing international treaties, passing new legislation, or releasing a few political prisoners. They do so to attempt to gain a little standing in the international community, to get human rights organizations off their backs, while not necessarily fully implementing such reforms. What this often means is that repressive regimes favour political crimes and show trials over mass killings or disappearances. It is a midpoint between traditional state repression and rule-consistent behaviour.

Of the 127 people arrested over Letpadan some 70 were later charged, such as Po Po, who had evaded initial detention but was rounded up in the weeks following. After the crackdown, the 20-year-old history student Po Po had gone home, where she was arrested on April 8 and brought to the infamous Insein Prison, while many others were held at Tharrawaddy Prison. Most of them have been charged with violations of the Penal Code and Peaceful Assembly Law, some facing the possibility of 10 years in prison. Enraged by the audacity of the state, activists and students in 11 cities around the country carried out protests in solidarity with the detained, prompting further arrests and charges of violating the outdated Penal Code.

The previous UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, has called for the abolition or amendment of the antiquated Penal Code, in many ways identical to when it was first enacted in 1860, to ensure that it complies with international human rights standards if there is to be a transition to democracy. Assessing Myanmar’s transition should be based on far more than the upcoming election. As we move closer to the November election we should remain cognizant of the growing numbers of activists behind bars who have done nothing more than engage in nonviolent civil resistance.

In testimony to premature talk of transition, the number of political prisoners since Thein Sein’s much touted amnesty at the end of 2013 has actually increased by nearly 600 percent, according to some figures – the vast majority of whom have been placed behind bars for their parts in various nonviolent campaigns, for violations of the Penal Code and the 2011 Peaceful Assembly Law. This law requires, in Article 18, that organizers obtain permission from township police chiefs five days prior to any demonstration and for any slogans or signs they intend to display. Each violation is prosecutable based on township, which means the students marching from Mandalay could theoretically be charged with a violation for each township they passed through without prior permission. As an indicator of scale, there are 33 townships in Yangon alone. A coalition of more than 50 activists and civil society organizations have been campaigning for years to amend Article 18. The group includes the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society and Generation Wave.

“I would say that Article 18 is related to everything, every issue. Because when people are repressed, while people’s rights are violated, they must have the right to express themselves.” Over an avocado smoothie at a roadside café in Yangon I speak with Moe Thway, co-founder of Generation Wave, one of the more active student movements that came out of the Saffron Revolution, about the detrimental impact of the Peaceful Assembly Law. “My worry about Article 18 is the first rank. It is the most important thing because it is the freedom of expression.”

The freedom of expression is a fundamental right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which in Article 20 also recognizes the freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

Reform must come from below

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Myanmar students protest. Thet Htoo/Demotix. All rights reserved.

Students have been mobilizing around the country, seizing the right of free, peaceful expression and assembly by protesting, marching, sending open letters, engaging through social media, and negotiating with the state. Those who have been beaten and detained are engaged in active civil resistance to renegotiate the meaning of political participation in a changing Myanmar. In many ways, it is about more than just the National Education Law. In their expression of resentment toward the state, and in the level of national coordination unachieved in decades, the opportunity for civil society to influence social or political policy in Myanmar is great, even in the face of Thein Sein’s demonstrably thin commitment to democratization.

While much of the international attention regarding democracy in Myanmar remains focused on whether Aung San Suu Kyi will be allowed to participate in the elections in 2015 or who will be the next president, the real hope for transition in Myanmar arguably rests with the burgeoning civil society seizing every political opening to demand accountability. The movement around the National Education Law has managed to do what few in Myanmar have achieved since independence: to create a lasting national, cohesive social movement united around a core set of grievances and demands. Students, monks, and other civil resisters will continue to face repression from the state. But Myanmar’s desire to reconnect to the world after more than two decades of isolation also guarantees that the state will be forced to make increasing tactical concessions, leaving further openings for civil resistance.

Matching resistance to repression in China

Pu Zhiqiang

First Published at openDemocracy on April 8, 2015. Also available here.

Prominent human rights activist Pu Zhiqiang has languished in pre-trial detention since his arrest last May – in the lead-up to the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre – on charges for several crimes including “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. His case remains at a crossroads today. Any day now prosecutors should decide whether to indict and begin his trial or hand the case again back to the police for further investigation – meaning more time to conjure up criminal intent. It is unfortunately highly unlikely that he will be released.

Pu Zhiqiang is another high-profile prisoner of conscience suffering under a severe crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping since 2013. But is this vocabulary of a crackdown, with its connotations of sudden escalation, constructive?

Throughout 2013 to 2014, I remember many grassroots activists around China relating to me their perceptions that the ferocity of government repression should be understood as steadily increasing pressure, not as a swift crackdown. It is severe and inexcusable, without question, but in this sense it is more similar to the ‘frog in boiling water’ folk tale than the sudden purges of past dictatorships.

For domestic rights defenders, the challenge has therefore become matching their resistance efforts to this sort of slow-onset repression. Rather than pursuing tactics of sudden unrest and demanding high-profile victories, more can arguably be achieved – especially within a high-capacity authoritarian regime such as China – through strategic actions, producing limited but sustained improvements.

The importance of such realizations is universal. Activists and movements that demand sudden systemic change can become upset when they fail in their mission, causing participation to dissipate or making participation in successive waves harder to secure. They may refuse to abandon or adapt their tactics accordingly, such as refusing to evacuate a public occupation until all their demands are met. The world witnessed the gruesome consequences of this logic in Beijing in the early hours of 4 June, 1989.

Observers and analysts began to issue similarly cautious remarks regarding Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution in late 2014. Victoria Hui, speaking with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, for example, outlined the need for tactical evolution in the form of methods of dispersion, which might garner less publicity but ultimately have more impact. Focusing on more systematic, grassroots, or small-scale change can ultimately be more productive for civil resistance and rights campaigns.

Broad resistance is harder to repress

Mark Lichbach came up with the five percent rule, that no regime can withstand the collective force of five percent of its population mobilized against it. Research by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan actually puts that number even lower, showing that the sustained active participation of 3.5 percent of a population is sufficient for a successful campaign.

While 3.5 percent is a lot larger than it sounds (nearly 45 million people in China), it is not an impossible number. As Chenoweth and Stephan have shown, it’s been done before. But it does require diverse tactics that can appeal to broad sections of society, and the ability to outmanoeuvre repression and think in terms of grand strategy over immediate rewards.

The Chinese government is likely aware of the possible threat posed by sustained collective action achieved through small-scale victories for activists. This, in part, explains the sophisticated attempts to circumscribe collective action and to respond with draconian measures against even minor civil dissent. Indeed, the government is notorious for issuing harsh sentences for moderate voices and activists.

The year 2014 was marked by a procession of reprisals against all manifestations of nonviolent civil resistance and domestic rights defenders, from Xu Zhiyong’s four year prison sentence and Liu Ping’s six and a half year sentence to Ilham Tohti’s life sentence. Figures released by the US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders indicate nearly 1000 cases of detention and torture of Chinese rights defenders in 2014, with more than 100 detentions drawn from seven provinces and three municipalities as simple reprisals against those who supported the Hong Kong demonstrations.

Much of this repression has come through the manipulation of Chinese law. In this sense it is persecution through prosecution, or what is called legalist repression. The vaguely worded crimes of “Picking Quarrels and Provoking Trouble” or “Disturbing Public Order,” outlined in Chapter VI, Section I of the Criminal Law, articles 290 to 293, have become a canvas applied to virtually anything the state finds discomforting. However, far more serious crimes have also been conjured to silence rights defenders, such as the appalling life sentence for Ilham Tohti on absurd charges of separatism.

There are several lessons in this for domestic actors and those who would support them – particularly the importance of steady, strategic development and a focus on details. This requires recognizing the dynamic between rights abuse and repression on the one hand, and the interconnectivity of resistance tactics on the other. Put another way, because repression is most often the context for a series of rights abuses, resistance that is too narrow is also more susceptible to persecution. The Chinese rights defence community has begun to recognize this.

For example, what begins as a land rights violation or forced eviction can escalate into a situation of arbitrary detention or disappearance of villagers who intervene between developers, hired thugs, police and local officials. Village petitioners might blockade township government offices or issue open letters. Some have resorted to mass public suicide. They also travel from the village or township to cities seeking government redress, file open information requests to expose the corrupt development negotiations, or organize small campaigns against corruption. By doing so, they may find themselves detained in black jails and abused by thugs or charged with illegal assembly.

Some turn to citizen lawyers or licensed lawyers for support at different stages. More tech-savvy petitioners and rights defenders post evidence of land theft and abuses to Weibo and other social media, or communicate with domestic or international media and organizations, at which point some might be arrested on charges of sharing state secrets. Sometimes the victim, jaded by an endless petitioning cycle, sees independent candidacy in local elections as a means of holding officials accountable.

How to protect a movement from state repression

Effective rights defence campaigns and civil resistance must prepare for the protection challenges of steady state repression. For a time, certain civil society actors such as lawyers, journalists, scholars, petitioners and labour, land or LGBT rights activists were focused on narrower solutions to their own causes. The mentality is shifting, however, in favour of more coordination and horizontal networking between groups.

This is not to say that issue-specific rifts don’t still exist. I’ve been frustrated in conversations with licensed rights lawyers who claim that grassroots ‘barefoot’ lawyers aren’t worth collaborating with. Similarly, freedom of religion activists have told me that gender issues aren’t an important civil society concern or that women don’t make as good ‘barefoot’ lawyers as men. But the broader preference is a trend toward more integrated communication and exchange.

These are among the lessons I have learned from nearly five years of supporting civil society and human rights in China.

The main protection challenges stem from the government’s manipulation or outright disregard of domestic law. However, despite the more traditional inclination of civil resisters to work outside of established state institutions, couching resistance in Chinese law has a demonstrated benefit.

The police often illegally detain rights defenders and activists. In some cases merely the presence of a lawyer or ‘barefoot’ lawyer may force the police to release the arbitrarily detained individual or at least begin proper legal proceedings. While the charges may still be contrived, operating within the legal system is preferable to disappearances or prolonged detention and is also advantageous to sustained rights defence and gradual normative change. Furthermore, even a flawed trial often supports greater coordination of civil resistance or advocacy campaigns than more illegal alternatives such as disappearance or detentions without trial.

The degree of international attention and domestic pressure and the profile of the activists are important factors in the effectiveness of rights defence. The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liu Xiaobo is unlikely to be released from prison any time soon nor will Gao Zhisheng realistically be free of revolving detention and harassment despite considerable domestic and international advocacy. These high-profile cases are important to the central government and maintaining a strong stance is related to demonstrating their supremacy. On the other hand, in 2005 Rebiya Kadeer was released from prison and permitted to leave China following international advocacy. More recently, in 2011, following sustained domestic and international efforts, journalist Qi Chonghuai was transferred out of Tengzhou prison where he was being savagely beaten under direct order of local officials.

While Beijing likely later grew to regret releasing Rebiya Kadeer, these cases demonstrate that concessions have been made but only in cases where the central government doesn’t have a direct interest in the detention. One of the most successful tactics in rights defence and civil resistance to date is recognizing and capitalizing on cases where central and local government interests do not overlap. Although no easy task, identifying targets for support within the pillars of the state can have a drastic impact.

What role can the international community play? Recognizing the differences on the ground and the specific needs of Chinese rights defenders and civil resisters is essential. This can be accomplished through greater support of civil society, especially through increasing attention to activists outside of Beijing and Shanghai, supporting less high-profile rights defenders and activists throughout the country. Pressure must also come from within Chinese society. The greater rights defence campaign successes have tended to come most from domestic organizations working from the grassroots.

This can be achieved through the creation of space. Chinese rights defenders and activists must be provided greater opportunities to simply come together and exchange ideas and skills. This can be done through more training programmes and experience sharing but also just through creative ways to gather freely. While digital networking is important for direct exchange in individual cases, the sustainability of a rights movement is built on face-to-face interaction. This increases trust and supports more intimate exchanges about grievances and tactics.

Furthermore, as activists around the world know, you don’t always need a strict schedule of events and curriculum; sometimes just facilitating gatherings of activists is the best way to support the development of rights awareness and resistance tactics. Again, the government of China is aware of such moves, which is why it responded mercilessly to the New Citizens’ Movement dinner meetings and the small apartment gathering organized by the Tiananmen Mothers in 2014 for which Pu Zhiqiang was detained.

Additionally, increasing awareness of the needs and limitations of front line rights defenders in China can be reflected in more flexible donor contributions, through international organizations or government mechanisms, to support small initiatives and start-up organizations. The Chinese government investigates and has persecuted foreign funded Chinese organizations and individuals receiving money from abroad. Leaking state secrets continues to be an opaque legal charge and method of repression, as with Gao Yu, and many activists have been detained or had funding seized for collaborating with international donors. Financial security for domestic activists is a serious challenge and should be part of the agenda of international rights defence support moving forward.

This assessment is far from comprehensive. These are some of the principal means of state repression and small tactical changes that Chinese rights defenders and activists engaged in civil resistance campaigns have begun to recognize. Focusing on more daily routines and details rather than higher profile events is an important step for the sustainability of civil resistance and rights defence in China. The utility of such principles, however, is not confined to China.

A common refrain among activists in many countries is that their struggle is unique, oppression too institutionalized, dictatorships too brutal, or causes not well supported by the international community. One can differentiate between the conditions for domestic resistance in China, Zimbabwe and Russia from the United States, Spain and Australia but civil resistance trainers are wont to repeat that conditions do not dictate outcomes.

While specific country conditions do not determine the outcomes of resistance, they do affect the availability of tactical options for a given act or campaign of resistance. And recognizing the importance of building sustainable campaigns through a series of small-scale victories, matching resistance to repression, and horizontal networking are therefore not only important guidelines for civil resistance in China. They also have universal value.

Violence and Nonviolence in the Uyghur Struggle

First published at on 10 October 2014 as Resistance, repression, and the cycle of violence in the Uyghur Struggle.

On Tuesday, September 26, 2014 a Chinese court convicted Ilham Tohti, a Uyghur economics professor, to a life sentence on charges of separatism in a disgracefully political trial. Amnesty International’s China researcher William Nee wrote, “This shameful judgment has no basis in reality. Ilham Tohti worked to peacefully build bridges between ethnic communities and for that he has been punished…”

Ilham Tohti’s conviction should be seen as a symbol sent by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to other Uyghurs and a reprisal against Mr. Tohti specifically for his outspoken activism for Uyghur rights. He has been adamant that central government policies have been abusive toward Uyghurs and have fueled conflict. However, he has been steady in his commitment to nonviolent action as the necessary path for Uyghur rights in China, always advocating autonomy never independence, despite contrary claims by the government.

Admittedly, over the past few years, there has been a tragic increase in violent episodes attributed to Uyghur discontent in China. Uyghurs are the ethnically Turkic, predominantly Muslim minority who claim ancient homeland in what is today the northwest Chinese province of Xinjiang, a Chinese word that literally translates as ‘new territory.’

Restive and repressive

Chinese and Uyghur historical narratives have been a source of contention. Uyghurs have suffered from state repression on the basis of cultural, linguistic, and religious rights and been disadvantaged by a number of prejudicial economic policies that favor the majority Han. While Uyghur grievances have sparked unrest in the past, the recent increase of violence is startling.

While the Chinese government has been quick to blame this spate of violence on Islamic radicalization and incitement by foreign forces, which has been used to justify greater securitization, most international human rights organizations point to a systematic assault on Uyghur rights and increasing militarization by the state as causes of escalating instability in Xinjiang.

Commonly reported on are the large-scale outbursts of violence such as the Kunming train station massacre in March 2014 or the Urumqi vegetable market bombing in May the same year, but more common are the countless episodes of everyday resistance and unrest directed at perceived targets of state repression. Many public manifestations begin as small groups of Uyghurs peacefully protest grievances of religious or cultural abuse or in solidarity with a detained friend or relative. This was the case following the questionable death of 17-year old Abdulbasit Ablimit when 17 Uyghur protesters were sentenced to between six months and seven years in prison.

Nonviolent demonstrators are attacked or arrested by security forces, which sometimes leads to radical flanks storming police or government buildings armed with knives and axes, many of whom are then gunned down by security forces and labeled as separatists and terrorists for their outburst. This tends to engender greater resistance to police violence. A similar situation triggered severe unrest in Yarkand in June 2014 that by one account resulted in the death of some 2,000 Uyghurs, although this has not been confirmed.

In such clashes police and government officials as well as civilians have admittedly been killed and no doubt some violent outbursts have been driven by religious fundamentalism, but the uniformity of central government depictions of the cause of violence and the categorical repression of Uyghur dissent challenge the validity of such narratives and fail to address the core instability.

The increase in violent resistance, the ongoing and perhaps escalating crackdown on Uyghur rights advocates, and zero-tolerance for all Uyghur dissent pose two pressing questions.

Firstly, why haven’t we seen more nonviolent resistance by Uyghurs? While Uyghur experts Gardner Bovingdon, James Millward and others have documented nonviolent resistance, it is less frequent than one might expect considering the litany of abuses and grievances generally acknowledged by international organizations.

The silencing of high profile Uyghur rights defenders who advocate for nonviolent resistance has arguably ceded some strategic and intellectual territory to more radicalized forces. The Chinese state seldom discriminates between peaceful and violent dissent among Uyghurs, treating virtually all expressions of grievance as connected to separatist ideology fomented by ‘foreign forces’ and calling for strike-hard campaigns against violent and nonviolent dissent alike.

Secondly, what is the root cause of the rise in violent manifestations in Xinjiang, and how does regime intolerance toward nonviolent resistance impact this? The late social scientist Charles Tilly wrote in Regimes and Repertoires that a government that narrows the openness for tolerated nonviolent civil resistance, such as demonstrations, petitioning or open letters, significantly increases both the likelihood of violent resistance and encourages further violent repression from the state — a cycle of violence.

Acts of dissent, acts of terror

Bovingdon explains in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that in the face of severe repression Uyghurs have for a long time engaged in both nonviolent collective action and everyday resistance, often taking the form of strengthening Uyghur distinctions from Han China and its political order.

Nonviolent civil resistance is more successful in achieving political change than violent insurgencies, explain Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan in Why Civil Resistance Works, in large part due to mass participation. Nonviolent movements have fewer barriers to participation, while violent movements have more. As such, state repression aims to increase the costs of participation; repression either constrains resistance or radicalizes tactics toward violence, as movement actors feel they have no opportunity for nonviolent dissent and nothing to lose.

Chinese government rhetoric continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances. Ironically, as Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available nonviolent channels for Uyghurs to express grievances, CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest. The unrest is then labeled as the influence of foreign forces because the government refuses to acknowledge the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances.

Virtually all Uyghur participation in nonviolent resistance may be labeled as inciting separatism and treated with severe repression, even in the case of those who merely participate in scholarship.

Resistance campaigns begin with cognitive liberation, which is fostered by dissident scholars and inspirational counter-culture figures. They too have been silenced and disappeared, unquestionably affecting the tactics of resistance.

Silencing the Uyghur who speaks

In 1989, Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published a 6,000 year Uyghur history. His scholarship positioned an empowering narrative that contradicted the official Chinese history designed to bolster Beijing’s claims to ancient dominance and to legitimize the Communist trope of emancipating enslaved minorities. The book was blacklisted and Almas was placed under house arrest until his death in 2001. In March 2002, authorities burned countless copies of his book along with thousands of others during raids on bookstalls in Xinjiang.

Two years later, in 2004, Nurmuhemmet Yasin was arrested, found guilty of inciting separatism, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. In 2013, a year before he was scheduled for release, authorities announced that he had died in prison in 2011. His crime had been writing a short story called ‘Wild Pigeon,’ an allegory for Uyghur captivity and abuse in Han-dominated China, an act of symbolic resistance. The magazine editor that published the story received three years in prison.

Abduweli Ayup studied in Turkey and completed his MA in linguistics through a Ford Foundation fellowship at the University of Kansas in 2011. Afterward he returned to Xinjiang and campaigned for Uyghur cultural and linguistic rights. He had a vision to establish Uyghur language kindergartens as a way to resist growing perceptions of assimilationist language policies. He documented his interactions with belligerent officials ‘to let people know how China was treating the status of the Uyghur language,’ said Mamatjan Juma of Radio Free Asia. In August 2013, Ayup was detained and later arrested on spurious charges of ‘illegal fund-raising,’ for selling honey and T-shirts to raise money for his language centers.

Ilham Tohti, with whom we began, was first charged with separatism in July 2014, after months of incommunicado detention. Despite being first detained on January 15, 2014, and constant pleas from his lawyers, he wasn’t allowed legal visitation until June and soon after that meeting one of his lawyers, Wang Yu, was forced out of the case after her law firm was intimidated by the government.

When I first met Mr. Tohti in 2011 he was clear in his discussion of Uyghur rights abuses and unwavering in his commitment to nonviolent resistance as the only strategy for promoting and protecting Uyghur rights. Speaking shortly after the announcement of the charges in July, Nicholas Bequelin of Human Rights Watch told The New York Times that charging Mr. Tohti with separatism “signifies that China is burning all bridges with moderate voices.” Similarly, William Nee of Amnesty International noted, “with violence on the rise in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, it’s difficult to grasp why the authorities would target a prominent Uyghur intellectual known for his commitment to nonviolence and dialogue between ethnic groups.”

Ending the cycle of violence

The Chinese government could do two things to address Uyghur grievances and decrease violent resistance. It could put an immediate end to its categorical repression of all performances of Uyghur resistance, i.e. no longer treating violent and nonviolent dissent alike, and it could immediately release individuals such as Tohti and Ayup who are clear prisoners of conscience.

Detaining and disappearing inspirational figures that advocate nonviolent resistance and moderate rights defense sends a signal to all would-be resisters that no amount of dissent will be tolerated. The state’s refusal either to acknowledge the legitimacy of ongoing grievances or to make structural adjustments, as well as its abusive policies and zero-tolerance toward dissent, will not encourage submission to Beijing’s rule. It will likely radicalize more severe resistance tactics in the vacuum of avenues for nonviolent action and the presence of moderate voices offering cognitive liberation.

The escalating repression of all acts of Uyghur claim-making might portend a deeper feeling of insecurity toward the power or validity of Uyghur grievances by policymakers in Beijing. Gene Sharp has observed that “repression is an acknowledgment by the opponents of the seriousness of the challenge posed by the resistance.” In that sense, one might interpret the brutality of state repression as a response to the Uyghur struggle: the state is actively engaged in decreasing participation in nonviolent resistance and delegitimizing Uyghur grievances by highlighting escalating violence.

Xinjiang or East Turkestan: Contending Historical Narratives and the Politics of Representation in China


July 5th marked the fifth anniversary of a series of bloody events in Xinjiang collectively labeled as the 7/5 Urumqi riots. Immediately afterward, state and international media set to reporting and analyzing the conflict, scholars and international human rights organizations soon joined. Meanwhile the government in Beijing launched damage control, exerting its monopoly of symbolic power by shutting down Internet connectivity to Xinjiang’s 22 million people for 10 months. From the violence and its aftermath numerous accounts emerged on the causes, significance, grievances, and policies that allowed or perpetuated the violence. Reports differed in placing the dead and disappeared in the hundreds to the thousands. Media and policy discussions ranged from dissecting socio-political to ethnic tensions. While some pointed at historical narratives others ignored them all together in their attempts to answer such questions as ‘who are the Uyghurs,’ or to identify the ‘East Turkestan’ threat in their search to prove or disprove that ‘China has a terrorism problem.’

Explanatory narratives on Uyghurs and Xinjiang have understandably grown more prevalent with rising instability and the violence attributed to Uyghur discontent. These accounts have ranged from statements by the Chinese government about mounting security threats and ‘foreign forces,’ documentation by human rights groups of structural inequality and abuse, or ranged wildly in tone and sophistication from both domestic and international media. However, too few accounts have set to the task of exploring the competing historical narratives, or the significance in controlling those narratives for the identities and lives they impact.

Competing narratives in the politics of representation not only play into how the CCP crafts its policy of dealing with the region and how it understands Uyghur grievances but also influences how Uyghurs perceive their place in central government policies and frame their grievances. In that sense, exploring the competing narratives of history, the provenance of place and the significance of name sheds light on contemporary discontent centered in this contentious region. They are present at the heart of the ongoing conflict. Rather than a passing reference or minor historical footnote they demand greater attention.

Why is it Xinjiang for some and East Turkestan for others? What is the significance in the terms and why has the name and history of the region become so contentious? Representations and narratives are a constituent of identity and group formation. They influence perceptions and the significance of grievances and the vocabularies of power.

I was in Xinjiang in 2009 and happened by chance to leave Urumqi five days before the riot erupted. I returned in 2011, traveling immediately afterward to Turkey where I spent several months doing research among the Uyghur diaspora in Istanbul. I always began my interviews by inquiring how they felt about the word Xinjiang, which literally means ‘new frontier’ in Chinese.

One Uyghur student, who had become a Turkish citizen in 2010, related, “When I hear, every time, that word, Xinjiang, it reminds me that, ‘Oh! You have your place named with another language. You have to change that name.’ It makes me think that way. Always makes me feel, always reminds me that my homeland, home place, or home country, is occupied by another power.”

Another graduate student related, “This word, when I was young, I didn’t have any special feeling. Chinese just call our region Xinjiang. But how do we call it? We don’t have any word. When I went to Malaysia [first left China] I learned something about our flag, our country. I know that place is not Xinjiang. Now, when I hear that word I just think ‘new project,’ a new chance for the Chinese to earn money.”

The preferred name among Uyghurs freer to express symbolic resistance, ‘East Turkestan,’ places them within a pan-Turkic identity and a distinct historical narrative. It is included in the name of many Uyghur rights, cultural and political organizations among the diaspora, as well as violent groups of questionable existence such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).

In China it is illegal to mention East Turkestan, Dong Tujuesitan, and the image of the East Turkestan flag, a crescent moon and star on a light blue field, is forbidden from public and private space. Human rights organizations have cataloged a number of Uyghurs being arrested and imprisoned for hoisting or displaying the flag in China.

For many Uyghurs ‘East Turkestan’ represents the history of an independent Uyghur nation, challenging the official Chinese narrative. It is little wonder then that the Chinese Communist Party conflates all mention of ‘East Turkestan’ with separatism and terrorism, says University of Kansas anthropologist Arienne Dwyer in a 2005 report on violence in Xinjiang.

It is a war of words and not just over whether to call an act of violence terrorism or not but how to situate a place in history and rectify its name, to use a Confucian concept.

In 1759, Qing troops conquered the Western region in what had been a history of territorial conflict. China has at times admitted this history but used it to state that, as in “History of the Uygurs,” a 2009 China Daily article, “The lives and cultures of people from multiple ethnic groups have been so intertwined for thousands of years that no single group can claim exclusive ownership of this region.” Still, the declaration of terra nullius is generally only put forth by the Chinese government to refute Uyghur historical claims to the region. While most independent historians tend to draw attention to the few thousand years of various Turkic empires that claimed jurisdiction in the region, from the Huns between around 200 BC to the 4th century AD to the Uyghur, Mongolian confederation from 1218 to 1759, Uyghur sources draw on the Turkic link of these empires to claim multiple independent Uyghur kingdoms in what is present day Xinjiang.

The predominant Chinese narrative is that Xinjiang has been the homeland of multiple ethnic groups since ancient times and an integral part of Chinese rule for centuries. Official accounts sometimes claim that Xinjiang was part of the Tang dynasty (618–907 AD) and that large numbers of Uyghurs, then foreigners, didn’t arrive in Xinjiang until the ninth century. Similar accounts stress Uyghur military cooperation with the Tang court in quelling rebellions in Eastern China.

Now when one travels through Xinjiang to sites such as the tomb of the 11th-century Uyghur linguist and cartographer Mahmud al-Kashgari, outside of the Southern Xinjiang town of Kashgar, they are greeted with an introductory plaque that situates him as a subject of the Song Dynasty (960 -1279). This is odd considering accepted maps of Song Dynasty territory don’t extend that far west. Some of Mahmud al-Kashgari’s most important works are stored in Istanbul; meanwhile, addressing the importance of rival narratives, Uyghurs and Uzbeks both claim Kashgari to their respective ethnic groups.

The Chinese insistence on a multiethnic history in the region, although factually not altogether contentious is arguably part of delegitimizing Uyghur claims to a titular national, historical landscape. Still, most independent scholars, such as anthropologist Dru Gladney in his Dislocating China: Reflections on Muslims, Minorities and Other Subaltern Subjects, tend to agree that the area wasn’t incorporated into China until 1821.

Conflict throughout the last two centuries of the Qing Dynasty was protracted. In 1864, Qing garrisons were jolted by the Yakub Beg rebellion, which resulted in the independent Khanate of Kashgaria. However, Beg’s sudden death in Korla in 1877 effectively brought an end to organized resistance to Qing rule. Historian and China expert, James Millward explains in his fastidiously documented Eurasian Crossroad: A History of Xinjiang that although Xinjiang had been treated more as a colony to that point, shortly after Yakub Beg’s death the region was officially made a province in 1884.

Uyghur expert Gardner Bovingdon claims in The Uyghurs: Strangers in Their Own Land that while Chinese officials and scholars had referred to Xinjiang as a colony before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, “Chinese historians after 1949 would busy themselves erasing any such reference.” The representation of Xinjiang as an ancient and unbroken part of China became the official discourse in national mythologizing after the founding of New China. Furthermore, China is generally understood in terms of the majority ethnicity Han, and another part of the nationalizing project of erasing any reference to Xinjiang as anything but always a part of China is the population influx of Han into Xinjiang. Han residents have grown from 6.7 percent of the population in 1949 to just around half in 2014.

The collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 plunged China into chaos. In Xinjiang, uprisings and brutal crackdowns were prevalent as the region was torn between a series of warlords and the competing geo-political interests of the Soviet Union and emerging rivalry between the Chinese Nationalist and Communist Parties.

On 12 April 1933, the independent East Turkestan Republic (ETR) was established in Kashgar. The leaders of the 1933 ETR were predominantly educators and merchants who had been influential reformers in the 1910s and 20s. Among the goals of the new republic was the cultural and educational revival of Turkic and Uyghur identity. Kashgar, the roughly two thousand year old silk-road oasis, has long been considered the symbolic and spiritual heart of the Uyghur community, a significance that has been enhanced by the legacy of the 33’ republic. It is also this cultural significance that compounds perceptions of oppression with the destruction of Kashgar’s Old City, for example, or reifies feelings of colonization when the preserved sections of the Old City are cordoned off by a Han owned company that charges an entrance fee. When I visited in 2011, those residents willing to speak on the matter told me that they did not receive any proceeds from ticket sales. The first ETR fell within a year to the brutal warlord Sheng Shicai. The Chinese writer and activist Wang Lixiong mentions in his 2007 book My West China, Your East Turkestan that while some of Xinjiang’s Han residents laud Sheng Shicai’s methods, Uyghurs often angrily drew parallels between the savage 20th century warlord and Wang Lequan the hardline CCP General Secretary of Xinjiang from 1994 in 2010.

On 12 November 1944, the second ETR was established in Ghulja, Yining in Chinese, a city in Northern Xinjiang very close to the border with Kazakhstan. Ahmetjan Qasimi, Mehmet Emin Buğra and Isa Yusuf Alptekin were influential forces in the founding of the second republic. They remain Uyghur heroes in popular historical narratives and Ghulja has not lost its spirit of resistance. In 1997 it was the site of one of the region’s largest episodes of contention. On the eve of Ramadan, 5 February 1997, hundreds of Ghulja’s Uyghur residents took to the streets. Amnesty International collected testimony at the time that the demonstrations were a response to growing resentment at heavy police pressure, ‘Strike Hard’ Campaigns, and the direct targeting of cultural and religious rights, a recurring grievance in Xinjiang. According to Global Security, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) was called in to suppress the demonstrations, killing 167 people and arresting over 5,000 Uyghurs. The 1944 republic ended in similar abruptness. All hopes of lasting independence for the Ghulja based East Turkestan Republic went down in flames on 27 August 1949.

Ahmetjan Qasimi and a coterie of Xinjiang’s top Uyghur intellectuals and political leaders had been invited to Beijing by Mao Zedong to attend the first Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The main task of the CPPCC was to discuss the particulars of the soon to be established People’s Republic of China. Ahmetjan Qasimi, who had kept the second ETR aligned with the Nationalists until toward the end, had switched sides and joined the communists at the encouragement of the Soviet Union and, according to prominent Uyghur narratives I have uncovered, promises from the CCP that Uyghurs would be rewarded with full independence. The plane, crowded with Uyghur leaders, never made it to the conference. In circumstances that would be repeated two decades later with the removal of Mao’s rival Lin Biao, the plane mysteriously crashed along the way.

Their deaths would be kept secret for several months, until the PLA had fully occupied the region. The death of so many well-educated and capable leaders resulted in a leadership vacuum for Xinjiang’s Uyghurs. In her memoir, World Uyghur Congress president Rebiya Kadeer notes, “The death of our leading delegation was too severe a setback for compatriots to overcome, and so our momentum toward independence came to a stop.”

Fearing a crackdown following the mysterious crash, Isa Yusuf Alptekin led a wave of Uyghurs out of Xinjiang into neighboring Kashmir, and Afghanistan. Similar routes have been replicated over the years by Uyghurs fleeing China’s borders, whether as would-be refugees or militants. I met Alptekin’s son Arslan, who was a child at the time, in Istanbul in 2011, only weeks before he passed away. He related the severity of conditions in the escape, remembering frozen corpses on the road as relatives dragged him along.

By 1952, through Alptekin’s lobbying and pressure from the UNHCR, Turkey accepted around 2,000 Uyghur refugees for resettlement in Kayseri, South of Ankara. The establishment of the Uyghur diaspora in Turkey, and later countries, and subsequent waves of refugees out of Xinjiang are important elements in the shaping of the official Chinese narrative on Xinjiang and the threat of ‘foreign forces.’ Middle East scholar and Uyghur expert Yitzhak Shichor has written extensively about this.

Despite a history of indigenous resistance, Chinese sources generally represent the two republics as the product of abusive foreign governments. This is the official position outlined, for example, by Chen Chao in Xinjiang de Fenlie Yu Fanfenlie Douzheng (The struggle of separatism and counter-separatism in Xinjiang). Media sources in China are no different. A 2009 China Daily article following the rioting in Urumqi, “’East Turkistan’ a concept forged by separatists,” states that in the early 20th century and later, ‘a small number of separatists and religious extremists in Xinjiang,’ influenced by overseas extremism and imperialism, ‘politicized the idea of East Turkistan’ and fabricated a history, which had never existed.

Contemporary official rhetoric has not changed. It continues to deny accusations of structural inequality and Uyghur grievances and labels the majority of domestic unrest as the result of ‘foreign forces,’ such as the Munich based World Uyghur Congress, The East Turkestan Foundation in Istanbul, or others. Ironically, as professor Millward notes, while “the PRC claims that the Uyghur terrorist problem is foreign in origin, much of China’s effort to combat terrorism is directed domestically at Uyghur cultural expression, thus worsening the Uyghur civil rights problem.”

By claiming that inequality does not exist, delegitimizing Uyghur claims, and circumscribing the available institutional channels for Uyghurs to report grievances, the CCP policy in Xinjiang continues to engender unrest, which is further labeled as the influence of ‘foreign forces’ because the government continues to deny the possible existence of legitimate domestic grievances. And, soon, all Uyghur discontent, or scholarship, may be labeled as inciting separatism. After all, these designations are left to the government to decide.

Because the CCP has enforced a zero tolerance for critical historiography and public debate domestically, the historical narrative among the Uyghur diaspora has tended to take on more radical interpretations and criticism of Han Chinese accounts. In this sense, by its unrelenting monopoly of symbolic power within the country, the government has institutionalized a domestic narrative that guarantees politicization from foreign sources.

This refusal to acknowledge competing historical narratives is of course repeated in the Party’s silencing of discourse on the 1989 Tiananmen Pro-Democracy Movement and elsewhere. As such, that same year Uyghur poet and historian Turghun Almas published his grand history of the Uyghurs, an impressive 6,000 year challenge to official histories. The book received considerable attention before it was banned a few years later, leading to Almas’ house arrest until his death in 2001. Subsequently, Uyghur historians and scholars have been marginalized as scholarship has become more politicized.

In 2013, with the disappearance and later arrest of Ilham Tohti, the Uyghur economist and Beijing professor who has been an outspoken advocate for Uyghur rights and nonviolent civil resistance, the government continues to circumscribe the boundaries of Uyghur scholarship and limits the mechanisms for Uyghur participation in political and public discourse. The separatism charges against him, and the brutal treatment he has endured while in state custody have been criticized by human rights organizations as reprisal for his rights defense. Some of rights defense was expressed through Uyghur Online, a website he established as a platform for discussion of Uyghur issues and concerns.

Equally concerning is the 2013 disappearance and later imprisonment of Uyghur language rights activist and educator Abduwell Ayup. The severity of his detention continues to imply central government perceptions that Uyghur cultural activism poses a threat. Professor Millward in a recent LA Review of Books article suspects that Chinese leadership and Chinese scholars are uncomfortable with Uyghur cultural uniqueness. I argue a step further in that central government concerns over Uyghur linguistic distinctiveness, the threat of Tohti’s Uyghur Online and Ayups activism for example, stems from its ability to position counter-narratives or alternate vocabularies for expressing grievances.

Xinjiang and Uyghurs have been represented by opposing narratives from all sides. This is understandable considering, as Bovingdon notes, actors in political conflicts often appeal to history to legitimize their cases. Without contextualization, contemporary narratives are sometimes no more than amorphous vocabularies ripe for the politicization of myriad interests. Historical narratives in the founding of a nation are fundamental to how that nation sees itself. They shape the dynamic between the powerful and the subaltern. When that happens, not only the histories themselves but also the languages used to explore and disseminate them become political. In understanding central government policies, accusations of abuse and unrest, claims of domestic grievances or ‘foreign forces,’ and arriving at substantive policy recommendations requires equal acknowledgement of the fundamental narratives and the power of language that resides at the heart of any conflict. Unraveling Xinjiang’s contentious history is no different.



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