21 August 2011

Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan

It's been interesting to learn more about Uyghurs living in Kyrgyzstan the last few months, mostly from talking to various Uyghurs here in various situations.  Sean Roberts has done significant research on Uyghurs in Kazakhstan, especially around Almaty, but little research appears to have been among Uyghurs in Kyrgyzstan.

There seems to be three fairly distinct groups of Uyghurs.  The oldest group are those who've "always" lived here, since before there were borders.  There wasn't a distinct Uyghurstan any more than a distinct Kyrgyzstan or most any -stan, and especially around Issyk Kul and Tokmok (and to some extent, around Osh) there are many Uyghurs who don't have a connection to East Turkestan.  For example, here in Tokmok nearly all Uyghurs are called Uzbeks on their passports and they are part of the mix of ethnicities that all interacts together in Tokmok.  I've read that it's the same around Issyk Kul where Uyghurs don't speak Uyghur and don't have any political or cultural interest in East Turkestan.

The next group are Uyghurs that left China in the '50s and '60s when China was exerting far more control over their lives than it ever had before.  Many who left at that time and came to Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan were either wealthy, well-educated, or politically powerful.  And many of them and their children and grandchildren now live in Bishkek and some suburbs and towns east of Bishkek.  There is a much stronger sense of being Uyghur among this group.  This is also the group that is more likely to tell you that they are from a certain city or area in East Turkestan and they are far more likely to know what is going on in China now.  They also are much more likely to have relatives in China.

(The two previous groups aren't entirely separate.  We know Uyghur families who left Kyrgyzstan in the '30s and '40s when things were bad in the Soviet Union and then returned 20 or 30 years later when the Soviet Union was a better place to live than China.  I've gotten the impression that these people remain part of the first group though, and didn't necessarily switch to the second, although I imagine it mostly depends on where you live- I hope we can talk about this more with the Uyghurs living in and around Bishkek.)

The final group are Uyghurs who hold Chinese passports and are in Kyrgyzstan to trade.  I've never talked to any of them and I've read that because they are interested in China's continuing to allow them to cross the border, they aren't connected with other Uyghurs living here. 

It would be interesting to talk to Uyghurs in the second group to learn a little more about what life was like in East Turkestan/Xinjiang before they left.  It's so difficult to find anything about China at that time and place and it seems that Uyghurs here could be a good resource, although many left before the Cultural Revolution really took off. 

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