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Wednesday, 11 September 2002

THE UYGHUR MINORITY IN KYRGYZSTAN

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By Rustam Mukhamedov (9/11/2002 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Uyghurs are one of the national minorities, who live in Kyrgyzstan. According to the last official statistics for 1999, there were 46,700 uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan, but unofficial sources say that the total is about 100,000, the difference arising since in Soviet time many Uyghurs were registered as Uzbek. Uyghurs are on the fifth place after the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian and Dungan (Hui) minorities in Kyrgyzstan.

Uyghurs are one of the national minorities, who live in Kyrgyzstan. According to the last official statistics for 1999, there were 46,700 uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan, but unofficial sources say that the total is about 100,000, the difference arising since in Soviet time many Uyghurs were registered as Uzbek. Uyghurs are on the fifth place after the Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Russian and Dungan (Hui) minorities in Kyrgyzstan.

Today, as other national minorities of Kyrgyzstan, Uyghurs are faced with various social, economic and political difficulties. If other national minorities have supporting states, for instance the Russian Federation for the Russian minority or Uzbekistan for Uzbeks, Uyghurs do not have such state. In Kazakhstan, Uyghurs are many more than in Kyrgyzstan, therefore there are Uyghur schools, theaters and other organizations. Children study all courses of secondary school in Uyghur. "Today there are a lot of problems, but the main is keeping our language alive. Language is an integral part of culture; it is the face of a nation", said Rozimukhamed Abdulbakiev, the chairman of Uyghur society in Kyrgyzstan "Ittipak".

Today the main problem is that Uyghur youth almost has forgotten their native language; many of them do not speak Uyghur at all. Some speak but cannot write in Uyghur. Gulnara Hamraeva, a lecturer in History at Kyrgyz National University, is the author of a book called "The Ethno-Cultural Development of Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan". She said "I do not speak Uyghur, I think the problem is that our elder generation did not teach us, now for us communication among Uyghur youth is important, and also the opening of Uyghur schools and educational centers will help to know the language".

Young Uyghurs learn their language on the street. Zulfiya Kurbanova, manager of "Ittipak" said that "I speak Uyghur badly, but I can read and write in Uyghur in Arabic script. I was 8 years old when an old man from our district called us if we want to learn Uyghur he would teach us. So on the street I have learned Uyghur script, though sometimes I cannot understand it"

Another problem is that the Uyghur traditions and culture have lost in importance not only for the youth but also for the elder generation. There is a rapid process of assimilation of Uyghurs. Moreover, due to the Uyghur struggle for independence in neighboring Xinjiang, many mass media resources have labeled Uyghurs as terrorists and extremists. One source said that "the label of terrorist has so influenced people, that they become watchful of me when knowing that I am Uyghur"

The articulation of mass media so influenced on people that they really started to believe that Uyghurs are terrorist. "Once some drunk policeman stopped a crew of young Uyghurs and told them that may be they were terrorist and they had to be checked by police." Ms. Hamraeva also added "My nationality influenced my life when I was studying at the university, I had to pay higher bribes than others, they thought that uyghurs are all businessmen, and that they are rich."

Another problem is that there is no representation of Uyghurs in government structures. As Mr. Abdylbakiev noted, "I think if somebody represents Uyghur interests it will help the Uyghur, but there is no Uyghur representative in the government or Jokorgu Kenesh (Parliament)."

Only one area where Uyghurs have privileges is cooking. Almost all good places to taste Eastern cuisine are owned by Uyghurs. Such caf├ęs as "Diyar", "Arzu" or "Arcada" are familiar to almost all Bishkek people. It is not secret that the cooking skills of Uyghur are preferred by people all over Central Asia.

Only by developing folklore, keeping traditions and teaching their language can Uyghurs help themselves. Shamsidin aka said, "We have to develop our folklore arts, music and of course our language. Our newspaper "Ittipak" is issued once a month by getting some financial help from the Uyghur Diaspora, but we wish it could appear more often". Today there is no political obstacle to open Uyghur schools or classes in areas compactly populated by Uyghurs. But the Government is poor and unable to finance it" said Mr. Abdulbakiev.

No NGOs or international organizations work with Uyghurs. Only the Open Society Institute helped the Uyghur Diaspora several times. It gave financial help to buy necessary equipment to the newspaper 'Ittipak' and helped to establish a small library.

Rustam Mukhamedov

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