Her name is Sayragul Sauytbay and she is best-credentialed, self-proclaimed eyewitness to the inner workings of a Chinese government run ethnic concentration camp in the far-western province of Xinjiang. Documents support her story that she served as a teacher in a camp for ethnic Kazakhs being “re-educated” on order from Beijing, stripped of their language, their culture and their Muslim religion.
After she was warned she was going to go from being a teacher to becoming another prisoner of the re-education system, she fled, illegally, she admits, across the border into Kazakhstan, where she has twice been turned down for asylum, and where she continues to press her case in the courts. Deportation for her back to China, she says, would mean imprisonment or even death, for her testimony about China’s systematic crimes against humanity in Xinjiang.
And, she says, she knows much more than she’s already told, but won’t give those details until she gets asylum somewhere. She told a reliable source, she’s asked for help from the American embassy in Almaty, the capitol of Kazakhstan, but there’s no confirmation of that, much less any hint the U.S. might intervene in her behalf.
Meanwhile, the leading advocate for ethnic Kazakhs in Chinese detention camps was just arrested by Kazakh police who also confiscated the computers and video cameras he’s used to document testimonies of imprisonment, psychological and physical abuse.
Rian Thum, the American scholar who was a guest on HERE & THERE back in October, says the Chinese crackdown on ethnic Kazakhs in Xinjiang is surprising since they were always regarded as a model of compliance with Chinese policy. The 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs are the second-largest Muslim group in Xinjiang, after the 11 million strong Uighur community which has been the main target of Chinese president Xi Jinping’s campaign of oppression.
The U.S. State Department says between 800,000 and two million Uighur citizens are now, or have been, in re-education camps. Other estimates based on everything from testimony from Uighurs and Kazakhs who have fled Xinjiang, Chinese government documents and visual observation from satellites put the number of Muslim political prisoners in Xinjiang at a million or more.
Sayragul Sauytbay says the Chinese government is desperate to hide the truth about what a top Beijing diplomat claims are “more like campuses than camps.” “In China, they call it a political camp,” Sauytbay told a Kazakh court, “but really it was a prison in the mountains.”
The crackdown on Kazakhs in Xinjiang came later, and most reports indicate, is on a much smaller scale than the massive internment of Uighurs. But the strategy, arrest and re-program adults, send their children off to boarding schools where they are forced to speak only in Mandarin, not Uighur or Kazakh and forsake the culture and religion of their parents is the same. Said another woman who had also been held in a camp, “Xinjiang has become a land of orphans.”
Salih Hudayar is the Political Affairs Officer for the East Turkestan National Awakening Movement (ETNAM) based in Washington, DC. He is originally from East Turkestan (a.k.a. Xinjiang Province, China) but now is a Uighur-American business consultant-turned-political and human rights actvivist. He founded ETNAM in July 2017. A 2017 graduate of the University of Oklahoma, he is currently pursuing a Masters degree in National Security Studies at the American Military University.