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Interview: ‘I am a powerless Pakistani citizen’ who ‘raised my voice for you’

Muhammad Usman Asad, a 22-year-old Pakistani student at the National University of Sciences & Technology in Islamabad, donned a doppa — a Central Asian skullcap — and clutched the sky blue flag of East Turkestan during a solitary sit-in to protest China’s repressive policies against Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the country’s far-western Xinjiang region. Asad staged his peaceful protest on June 10 during a campus celebration of China’s Dragon Boat Festival. Nong Rong, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, and other Chinese officials involved in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor — a collection of multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects built in Pakistan since 2013 under China’s Belt and Road Initiative — attended the event, organized by the university’s China Study Centre and Centre for International Peace and Stability. Asad, who said he learned about China’s abusive policies targeting Muslims in Xinjiang while surfing online, was shocked to learn that Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim country, was not helping the Uyghurs, but instead siding with its ally China. Reporter Gulchehra Hoja of RFA Uyghur talked to Asad about why he staged the protest on the Chinese holiday and how others responded. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

RFA: How did you learn about Uyghur situation?

Asad: When I was a child, I only knew that there was a province in China which is predominantly Muslim. I didn’t have much knowledge about the history or the culture or know anything about the genocide that is currently going on. When I started growing up, I used to spend a lot of time on the internet and reading about a lot of issues. I didn’t have enough knowledge or enough sources when I was back home, but when I lived in other cities where we had free internet service, we started using Facebook and other social media platforms like YouTube. From there, I started researching the topic. I [watched] many documentaries, and there was so much clear evidence that I couldn’t stop myself from sympathizing with the Uyghur issue or denying the fact that the genocide is currently going on. I then critiqued it within my own mind, comparing the Kashmir issue with the Uyghur issue, and I came to the conclusion that the Uyghur issue was more fundamental and more devastating and that the situation is very harmful for the Muslim community there.

RFA: Have you been in touch with any Uyghur activist groups or activists in Pakistan?

Asad: About one year ago, I came across a VICE News documentary. From that point on, I came to know about the … Uyghur community living here in Pakistan. When this event was being organized inside our university, about three or four days before, I was thinking about the university saying that there was a big billboard [for it]. So, I thought that I should do something about it in relation to protesting the Uyghur issue. I didn’t have any access to anything, so I started researching on the internet and found the Omar Uyghur Trust in Pakistan (a Uyghur language and cultural organization) and [contacted] Omar Khan (the group’s cofounder). We had a meeting just two days before the protest at the university. We discussed everything [about the issue], and he gave me the cap as well as a flag. I was preparing for my exams as I was preparing to do the protest.

RFA: Did you reach out to your friends or other students to join your protest?

Asad: I tried reaching people, but they were busy with their exams. They promised to support it, but when they got to the campus, there were fewer people present there.

RFA: Did anybody try to stop you from protesting?

Asad: When I entered the event, two people were sitting right beside me, and they were scaring off all the people I asked to take my picture. They told them that the authorities would come for them and they would be kicked out of the university. One person who took one of my pictures went out for some water, and the security team went up to him and ordered him not to sit beside me. The person did not agree with it. All they wanted to do was get all the images that I had taken during the whole event. … I said that if I just went outside the building and held this flag, it wouldn’t bother them and wouldn’t mean anything to either of them. …. [With] all the high Chinese cultural representatives here and all the different Pakistanis present, I said to myself, “OK, this will work.”

RFA: Did anything happen to you after the protest?

Asad: I haven’t received any threats either from the university or from the disciplinary committee.

RFA: Have you been in contact with any Pakistani journalists at local news organizations?

Asad: I am a student, so I don’t have connections with a lot of media persons — radio persons who are very influential. They are mostly controlled by the Pakistani establishment, so even if you go and speak to them, they will still need a green light from [officials]. Even if any of the media in Pakistan wanted to cover the issue, all the Chinese would need to do is place one call to the authority that regulates electronic media, and all the content would be taken off.

RFA: Are you now concerned about your safety or are you being pressured by authorities?

Asad: I have been following different stories of human rights activists within Pakistan, and our conditions are not very great. At the same time, I thought that the university could do something with having a disciplinary committee. I was having a lot of tension, and I was thinking again and again about how I should do the protest in such a way that my own studies and my own career [would not be affected] and that I would not get sued by the government. I thought that they would take me away for one or two weeks. That wouldn’t be a problem for me because I wasn’t doing something associated with terrorism.

RFA: Why don’t the majority of Pakistani Muslims do or say something against China’s genocide of the Uyghurs?

Asad: The main issue is a lack of information. I think much of the content is available in English. [People] will understand it if it is in American English, but if someone doesn’t understand English, then those guys just want to believe all the Chinese lies, or they just have a sense that China is our friend [and] is helping us economically. … There is a lot of content available on social media. A lot of people are supporting a cause. If the Uyghur activists in Pakistan start targeting people who have a lot of following within Pakistan, then they start speaking up about the issue, in more or less time a lot of people will become aware of it. The Pakistani nation is old, and the very best people take matters of the Islamic world very seriously.

RFA: Is there something you’d like to say to the Uyghurs in Xinjiang?

Asad: I am a small person, and this is all I could do for you as of now. I am a powerless Pakistani citizen who can’t even speak for his rights in his own country because this would be directly linked to being like a separatist inside of Pakistan. But at least I raised my voice for you because I thought I could defend myself and that Pakistani authorities wouldn’t bother me much. … One day, inshallah, we will see East Turkestan become an independent country on the face of the earth, and we Pakistanis will be your humble neighbors who will do what’s in our best effort to support your moment and your country.

Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.