Members of the Uyghur diaspora recently marked the 25th anniversary of the passing of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, one of the ethnic group’s most prominent intellectuals and a figure who devoted his life to independence from Beijing’s rule in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
Alptekin was born in Yengisar (in Chinese, Yingjisha) county, in what was then the Qing Dynasty’s Kashgar (Kashi) prefecture, in 1901. In late 1949, following the Chinese Communist invasion of the Uyghur region, he left China and eventually resettled in Turkey in 1954.
In 1960, Alptekin established the East Turkestan Expatriates Society in Istanbul, using the name preferred by many Uyghurs for their homeland, and later the East Turkestan Foundation. He fought tirelessly for the freedom of his people until his death on Dec. 17, 1995.
During his half-century-long fight for independence, Alptekin traveled around the world to attend international conferences in an attempt to raise awareness of the situation in the XUAR, where Uyghurs face discrimination and are restricted from practicing their Muslim religious traditions, using their own language, and preserving their culture, despite protections under Chinese law.
Hamuthan Göktür, who worked for Alptekin from 1965 to 1995, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the late intellectual had made a significant contribution to the recognition of the Uyghur independence movement in Turkey.
“If you asked anyone in Turkey where they learned about the East Turkestan cause, that there was a region and country called East Turkestan, they would say from Isa Yusuf Alptekin,” he said.
After he was blinded in a traffic accident in 1978, Alptekin did not abandon his campaign for East Turkestan independence. He founded a publishing center in Istanbul in 1980 and the East Turkestan Foundation in 1985.
‘The torch of independence’
Omer Kanat, the executive director of the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) and the chairman of the executive committee of the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), worked with Alptekin for more than seven years, beginning in 1980.
“Mr. Isa unwaveringly held up the flag of independence, the torch of independence,” he said. “In his final days, Mr. Isa spoke of our homeland, our nation … he would talk about nothing else.”
As well as publishing in newspapers and magazines, holding press conferences, making statements to reporters, and writing letters to the leaders of various countries, Alptekin also wrote numerous articles and books. Many of his writings have become important sources in Uyghur studies today.
WUC President Dolkun Isa, called Alptekin “not only a politician but also an opinion writer,” noting that he had also written many books, several of which were published in English, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.
From the day he arrived in Turkey in 1954 until his death in 1995, Alptekin met with every Turkish president and prime minister, as well as several ministers, to discuss the Uyghur issue and address the plight of migrant Uyghurs in Turkey.
“He spoke with eloquence and that he had a humane demeanor,” said UHRP’s Kanat.
“I was with him when he met with world leaders … If you paid attention, it seemed from the words he used and the way he interacted with people that the leaders of two countries were meeting.”
Isa Yusuf Alptekin was buried at Topkapi Cemetery, where former Turkish Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and former President Turgut Özal are interred. His funeral was attended by Turkish President Süleyman Demirel and several ministers, and major Turkish television channels covered the service live. His legacy lives on through the work he did for the Uyghur community and in the many parks, streets, and schools that carry his name in Turkish cities.
Reported by Erkin Tarim for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by the Uyghur Service. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.