Written by Yu-Wen Chen.

Uyghur activists have been working closely with Taiwanese independence-minded activists to create a Taiwan Friends of Uyghurs organization, expanding the global Uyghur national self-determination movement’s outreach to the island. This new development arrives at a time when Beijing is again tackling deadly violence in Xinjiang, accusing “Uyghur terrorists” for inciting unrest. Taiwan independence-minded activists moving closer to Uyghur exile activists would certainly displease Beijing in every way, straining China’s relationships with both Taiwan and Xinjiang.

It should be noted that Taiwan Friends of Uyghurs is not a member organization of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), which is the proclaimed umbrella organization of the Uyghur national self-determination movement [1]. However, one of the key figures behind the birth of Taiwan Friends of Uyghurs, Ilham Mahmut, is the head of the Japan Uyghur Association (JUA), a WUC member organization based in Tokyo.

A relatively nascent WUC branch, JUA only came into being in 2008, with Ilham Mahmut as the head of the organization. Mahmut’s initial foray into politics was greatly fostered by Hideki Nagayama, a diehard Japanese activist of the Friends of Lee Teng-Hui Association, a pro-Taiwan-independence group in Japan. Nagayama is a living example of Japan’s conservative right-wing, which is staunchly opposed to communist China. Right-wing communities in Japan are easy bedfellows for nationalist Taiwanese and the Tibet, Inner (or Southern) Mongolia, and Uyghur movements, as they all share an antipathy toward China.

As Nagayama is well-connected to the Taiwan independence movement in Japan and Taiwan, he tries to share his connections with Mahmut in the hope that the Uyghur movement in Japan can find further support in terms of resources and networks. Mahmut’s grandfather Yolwaz, known as Yolbas Khan, is a famous Uyghur.* When Yolbas Khan relocated to Taiwan in 1951, the Kuomintang government designated him chairman of Xinjiang Province should the nationalist Chinese party have defeated the Chinese communists and regain the mainland. That day never came, and he passed away in 1971 [2]. Due to this family history, Taiwan has always been in Mahmut’s mind, even before he started working as a Uyghur activist. This family connection made him interested in paying a visit to the island when Nagayama proposed to help make the connections.

In October 2011, Mahmut finally paid his first visit to Taiwan with Nagayama. During his first stay, the Uyghur activist was invited to speak to Taiwan Friends of Tibet and the Taipei Times, making his case to the wider Taiwan public and Taiwan’s English-speaking community.

In late 2012, Paul Lin and Marie Yang of the Taiwan Youth Anti-Communist Corp helped set up a preparatory group for the establishment of a Taiwan Friends of Uyghurs. During Mahmut’s most recent visit, the fifth visit to Taiwan in April and May 2013, he confirmed that Taiwan Friends of Uyghurs has a legal existence and will be officially established soon. At a conference entitled “Don’t Let Taiwan Become a Vanished Country—Implications from South Mongolia, East Turkestan, and Tibet,” Mahmut further spoke with Southern Mongolian activist Temtselt Shobstuud, Tibetan activist Lukar Sham Atsock, as well as representatives from the Taiwan Friends of Tibet, World United Formosans for Independence, Taiwan Association of University Professors, Taiwan Society, and other anti-China groups to express their respective nationalist interests against Beijing’s claims to sovereignty [3].

As Taiwan is a liberal democracy, Uyghur activists in principle can benefit from Taiwan’s open domestic opportunity structure to further their political cause. Both Mahmut and Nagayama are conversant in Chinese. This ability also makes it easier for them to communicate their political cause with potential Taiwan-based sympathizers. Although they are not the sole Uyghur-minded activists trying to reach out to Taiwan, they have succeeded in setting up an organization and securing supportive forces from Taiwan to help raise awareness of their issues among the Taiwanese audience.

In the past, leading WUC Uyghur activists such as Rebiya Kadeer have been denied entrance to Taiwan on the grounds that they are terrorist suspects and would jeopardize Taiwan’s security. This line is adopted from Beijing’s policy to depict all WUC activists as terrorists. Kadeer herself has not yet made it to the island, but with the establishment of a circle of Uyghur supporters and sympathizers in Taiwan, it is likely that activists will try to help Kadeer visit in the future.

Although the likelihood of putting the Uyghur political cause on Taiwan’s mainstream political agenda is low, this newly-formed Taiwan-Uyghur nexus will not please Beijing, adding tension to Taiwan’s relationship with China. This nascent phenomenon merits further observation.

*Correction: An anonymous reader pointed out that Yolwaz was not Mahmut’s grandfather. I called Mahmut in Japan and another Uyghur in the UK to double-check. According to Mahmut, Yolwaz was the father of his mother’s sister. His mother and his mother’s sister had different fathers. Hence, he used the term “grandfather” in a loose term. As there is a connection in the family history (albeit weak), Mahmut has respected Yolwaz as if Yolwaz were his real grandfather. As I understand, Yolwaz was buried in Taiwan. When I first interviewed Mahmut in 2011, he mentioned that he has never been to Taiwan, but would like to visit Yolwaz’s tomb if he has the chance to go to Taiwan. Later that year, Mahmut made his first visit to Taiwan, and he did find Yolwaz’s tomb and paid tribute. Mahmut admitted that he should have clarified this with me. And I apologize that I have caused this confusion.

Yu-Wen Chen is a lecturer at the Department of Government at University College Cork (UCC) and the executive editor of Asian Ethnicity. She is the author of the forthcoming book The Uyghur Lobby: Global Networks, Coalitions and Strategies of the World Uyghur Congress (Routledge 2014).

Notes

[1] The WUC is composed of member organizations located in various countries around the world, which seek to garner public and governmental support for their kindred’s rights in China. An example of the WUC’s member organizations is the Washington-based Uyghur American Association (UAA).

[2] Interview with Ilham Mahmut of the Japan Uyghur Association, in Tokyo, August 17, 2011. Tyler’s (2003: 225–6) book has an account of the life of Yolbas Khan. See Tyler, C. (2003) Wild West China: The Taming of Xinjiang, New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

[3] The conference was held in Taipei on May 11, 2013.

Comments

  1. The story discussed here about Mahmut is no true in many aspects. As a Uyghur and I have known Mahmut for quite a while, I believe the writer of the article has been misled somehow.

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