Agam's Gecko
Wednesday, May 05, 2004
With all the attention on extremist minorities within Islam, it's all too easy to forget those gentle and kind Muslims who I still believe form the vast majority. Having spent a lot of time over the last 15 years in the country with the largest number of Muslims (Indonesia), I can certainly affirm that generous hospitality and the acceptance of non-Muslim Agam as a brother, has always been the rule and not the exception. To tell the truth I can't actually think of an exception, so while I know there are Indonesian Muslim chauvinists, I can't really say I've actually knowingly met one.

From everything I've ever read about the Uygurs of Xinjiang province of China (East Turkestan as they prefer to call it), I think I would really enjoy getting to know them as well. A very ancient culture at the hub of the old Silk Road, the Uygur people had absorbed influences from many sources over the centuries, resulting in a very unique and tolerant society. Unfortunately the continued existence of this society is seen as a threat by the Chinese Communist Party to their unchallenged rule over the area, and the current war on radical Islamic terrorism has provided them a convenient excuse for their repressive measures against the Uygurs. The once independent country of East Turkestan had at that time something in the single digits of percentage of Han Chinese residents. Following the re-occupation of the region after the Chinese revolution and the ensuing population transfer policy, the Han now form a slight majority.

But the Chinese rulers do not use only their standard assimilation measures, such as overwhelming the area with vast numbers of Han settlers, and educational restrictions on language and religion. Thousands of Uygurs have been arrested under the rubric of "terrorists", and hundreds have been executed. In this aspect, it seems apparent that the Uygurs are being even more brutally repressed than the Tibetans, and this is possible simply because the world pays little attention to the oppression of Muslim minorities (except for ones who regularly bomb school buses, it seems) - and they don't have a Dalai Lama to speak on their behalf. Actually that's not exactly true, because His Holiness has in fact raised their plight in his international meetings.

The plight of the Uygurs is the subject of a Globe and Mail article this week, and a hat tip to Stephen Sullivan who writes The China Letter for picking it up. In his very worthwhile analysis of the Globe piece, he notes what might perhaps be an overemphasis on the "Muslims under seige" aspect, noting that the Uygurs are almost always portrayed in western media writing as "restive Muslims of Xinjiang". He maintains (and I tend to trust his evident experience with this issue) that what is happening would be more properly termed the death of the Uygur culture, meaning the customs and civilization of that particular people, and with Islam being in fact only one aspect of that culture. As the Globe article ominiously states, "Here, however, Islam has collided with the ruthless methods of the world's biggest Communist state -- and the state is winning." In another rather chilling statement, the article quotes a Chinese military officer:
"The Uighur people are wild and rude," an army general explains during a flight to Xinjiang. "But in the future the Uighurs will be like the Manchus, assimilated by the Chinese, because the Chinese culture is much stronger."
This is a sentiment which Stephen notes is not an isolated one. He writes that, "It is one held by a large proportion of Chinese from illiterates to educated people and one I believe has been held firmly by the powers in the CCP since their takeover of Xinjiang in 1949."

This very interesting account of an Uygur woman (who now lives in Canada) returning to visit her birthplace, gives a taste of the climate of fear experienced by her people, and the sense of ignorant chauvinism routinely expressed by their Han Chinese ruling class.

UPDATE: Oops, it looks like that page, and in fact the entire domain, has disappeared. Sorry about that - if anyone knows how to pull pages out of Google's cache, I can't seem to manage it. Too bad, it was a fascinating story - I wish I'd saved it now. Nefarious CCP activities..... I have no idea. The site url had been posted to a place where Han chauvinists congregate, so who knows?

PM Thaksin has announced an independent panel of inquiry into last week's wave of attacks in the southern provinces, in the wake of criticism at home and abroad over the military's apparent "take no prisoners" response. The panel will be made up of two former ambassadors, two former government officials, two Muslim academics and chaired by a judge of the Constitutional Court. They are to present their report in one month. Meanwhile, PM Thaksin is planning to visit the south for three days - no mention of his pledge before the violence to sleep there for three months while he solves the all problems himself. He is rather upset with the media coverage due to effects on the investment climate, and would prefer the papers not to report on the heightened security alert at Government House yesterday. Intelligence reports apparently raised fears that a group of militants had arrived in the capital from Pattani, intent on revenge for the Khrue Se mosque incident and planning to attack the seat of power.

The PM, for what is thought to be the very, very first time, acknowledged that separatist insurgency is a factor in the ongoing unrest in the south. Last week it was bandits and thieves and drug addicts who launched the coordinated attacks, but this week, "I never said separatism was not the factor. It is." OK, that's progress. Meanwhile in Suso village in Songkla's Saba Yoi district, residents turned out to mourn the death of their entire football team, all 19 members of which were gunned down while trying to raid a police station last Wednesday. Of the 32 bodies pulled out of the ancient Khrue Se mosque in Pattani, seven have remained unclaimed. Since Islamic custom mandates that a body must be buried within 24 hours of death, and all other casualties had been accounted for and identified by relatives, it is believed that these seven are foreign nationals.

An un-named but "reliable" Fourth Army source quoted in Bangkok Post this morning, stated that intelligence reports and statements of witnesses and survivors pointed to involvement of Jemaah Islamiyah (Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's group based in Indonesia) and Kumpulan Mujahideen Malaysia (an affiliated jihadist group focused on Malaysia and Singapore). The unidentified bodies are thought to be Indonesians. On the hearts and minds front, the hundreds of extra troops rushed to the south over recent days include many with experience in the East Timor peacekeeping operation, which should stand them in good stead. Some positive scenes are evident now, with soldiers and villagers working together to rebuild schools and other structures which have been destroyed over recent months in the recurring waves of arson attacks.

Is humiliation and degradation the equivalent of torture? I suppose we have to accept these things as falling under the psychological torture category, but I have a hard time with the moral equivalency that assumes the disgusting behaviour of a group of American jailers at Abu Ghraib prison is on a par with pulling out fingernails, searing with branding irons or the million other ways of inflicting pain and injury that humans have devised. Yes of course, humiliation is nasty business and those kind of disgusting practices we've all seen the pictures of by now can never, ever be justified. But really, the underlying assumption that this is no different than what went on in this prison when it was housing Saddam's torture cells, disgusts me almost as much.

The male prisoners were stripped, laughed at by women and humiliated, frightened by fake threats of electrocution, threatened with rape and other such affronts to their masculinity, made to pose in degrading ways, pissed on, scared by snarling dogs, and so on. It's truly disgusting and the perpetrators were in effect pissing on their honourable mission to promote democracy and human rights, pissing on the sacrifices made by their own brother and sister service members, and pissing on the Iraqi people they had come to set free from tyranny. In addition, they've given aid and comfort to the enemy and have generally created a huge setback for the just cause they were sent to advance. I can't believe the stupidity, not just to do this stuff, but to take pictures of it! But so far as I've heard until now, the only physical injury out of all this was a dog bite - more than likely when the stupid handler lost control of the situation. I hear today there is a rumour of a death in custody, but this hasn't been confirmed as far as I know.

If one was to rely solely on headlines and the mass media coverage, one would surely think it was the glorious fourth estate which revealed all this in a selfless act to right the injustice. In fact it was a conscientious military man who blew the whistle, and the US military immediately launched investigations and courts martial proceedings against those involved. This stuff shouldn't be tolerated and they clearly did not tolerate it, as those legal proceedings were taken in January. There seems to have been no delay between the abuses coming to light, and severe action against the perpetrators. And contrary to general belief, the fact of these investigations and legal action against some military personel for abuse of prisoners was reported openly to news agencies months ago. The news agencies didn't follow it up, because it was just kind of a "ho-hum" story without the fabulous pictures. The only difference is that now, several months later, CBS news got hold of the photographs and broadcast them to the world. I'm not saying in any way that they shouldn't have done that, but let's tell the whole story here. These were some aberrant, sick individuals who ridiculed and abused prisoners in their care, somewhat in the manner of a college hazing ritual - and the authorities with responsibility over these immature brutes acted to step on it hard and fast. So enough already with the sinister looking photos emblazoned on tv screens every half hour, intended to make US military people out to be nothing more than vicious Nazis running torture and death camps.

Under the previous guards at Abu Ghraib, use of such methods would have been punished for being too dainty. Under that regime, and dozens of others around our world today, truly vicious methods of inflicting unimaginable physical pain, permanent injury and death, would routinely be rewarded with praise and promotion for a job well done. Civilised countries punish the abberant soldier who inflicts unneccessary psychological humiliation, as well they should. But please let's not pretend that one is the same as the other. Leave that to the Al Jazeerah and Al Arabiya networks, gloating as they are with a propaganda gift from some idiots who are no longer holding authority at Abu Ghraib.

It's interesting to read Omar's take on all this at Iraq the Model. Of course a few days ago when the story broke (and Iraqis as well as all Arabs under the watchful beam of Al Jazeerah and Al Arabiya satellite broadcasts were bombarded even more than the rest of us with these images), even the usually pro-coalition Iraqi bloggers were outraged, offended and angry. But later on, Omar says he was surprised at the generally low-key reaction he'd seen among Iraqis, more mild than that in other Arab countries and especially in the Arab media. In comparison with the Iraqis' strong reaction to the killing of Hamas leader recently, and despite the "manic reactions" of the Arab media, he wonders why the absence of big demonstrations and outrage. And true to Omar's usual form, he not only wonders about the crucial questions, but he sets out to systematically find some answers.
Is it because of the firm and rapid response from the American officials to these terrible actions?

Or is it because the Iraqi people lack compassion with the majority of these prisoners?
Could it be that the Iraqi people and as a result of decades of torture, humiliation and executions, took these crimes less seriously than the rest of the world?

Or have the majority of Iraqis finally developed some trust in the coalition authorities and in the American army, to sense that these actions must be isolated and will be punished?

I can't say I have the full answer but I guess it's a combination of a little bit of all the above.

I can say that at least some Iraqis seemed to have understood the situation and were satisfied with the reaction of the American officials and their promises that the offenders will be punished. While a wide segment of Iraqis seemed indifferent with the issue and only showed their disapproval when they are asked about it, but rarely with what one can call an angry tone, and I'm talking about my personal experience here, as I tried to ask the largest number of people about their feelings before I write about it.

Here I would like to provide a conversation I had with some friends whom I haven't seen for a long time and met just yesterday. After a few words of greetings that friends usually exchange after not seeing each other for a long time, the conversation turned towards the current situation in Iraq, and as the prisoners abuse issue is the hottest topic nowadays, I started my attempts to discover their points of view about it. They were all upset but they showed satisfaction with the fast and firm reaction of the coalition higher officials and were also impressed by the honesty of the American soldier who reported the abuse and uncovered tha awful behavior of those criminals but at the same time they said that they're looking forward to "see the offenders get some real punishment, not just directing few harsh words. A sentence for 3 or 4 years in prison will be convenient". Others showed more understanding to the American law system.
It's definitely worthwhile to read the whole thing, as he elicits views from his friends on several other topics besides the prisoner abuse issue - from the range of media available to them (and funny observations about some of the thick Irish and Scots brogues we must wade through on BBC lately - and I can certainly empathise with them!), to the country's future transitional leadership. But it is very encouraging to see the indominable optimism many of these young Iraqis exhibit, as he ends his post -
When I said goodbye to my friends I sensed some optimism inside me when I realized they are paying more attention to the future and were not fooled by the Arab media to act only in response to emotions.

Andrew Sullivan gives us the full text of a quote by one of the abused Iraqi prisoners, which was used the other day by the Sydney Morning Herald to bolster their "US abuse worse than Saddam's, say inmates." headline. Mr. Shweiri, 30, was described as "a diehard fighter" in the Mahdi Army, the anti-US militia of Muqtada al Sadr.
Mr Shweiri said that while jailed by Saddam's regime he was electrocuted, beaten and suspended from the ceiling with his hands tied behind his back. "But that's better than the humiliation of being stripped naked," he said. "Shoot me here," he added, pointing between his eyes, "but don't do this to us... They made us stand in a way that I am ashamed to describe. They came to look at us as we stood there. They knew this would humiliate us. We are men. It's OK if they beat me. Beating don't hurt us, it's just a blow. But no one would want their manhood to be shattered. They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman."
So beatings, electrocution and shoulder dislocations are just fine with Mr. Shhweiri, but to be made to feel the way women feel is the worst of all. Did SMH wish to avoid offending their "progressive" readers, by leaving off everything after "don't do this to us..."? Perhaps the full quotation was too revealing of the medieval attitudes of Mahdi Army "freedom fighters"?

The Tibetan Youth Congress yesterday called a halt to their hunger strike on Day 32, after two senior UN officials assured them that the esteemed international body had heard their demands and pledged to take specific measures to improve the situation in their homeland. Carolyn McAskie, a deputy undersecretary, told the two remaining strikers (one had been hospitalised a few days earlier) that "I hear your cry." I hope she can do more than hear their cry.
Ms. McAskie received an earful from Dechen Tsomo, who had been caring for the hunger strikers.

"China gives you pressure and you always listen to them," she said. "Please don't let us die in exile, and let the Tibetan people die in China."

"Yes, I know," Ms. McAskie said.
Not really all that encouraging, but let's watch and see what happens. Read the New York Times coverage via Phayul Tibetan news site.

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