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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Editorial: Tufts community can help Kamile Wayit, other minority groups in Asia facing state persecution

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In the past few decades, reports detailing systemic oppression of minority populations in Asia have come into focus. From the genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar to China’s decimation of Tibetan and Uyghur communities, the magnitude of persistent human rights violations calls for increased attention and political advocacy from the international community. 

Most classes on contemporary Asia focus on Asian countries’ actions in the international sphere, such as their competition with the West. Few courses explore state oppression and invasions of minority rights in the region, one being PS126: Chinese Politics, taught by Elizabeth Remick, associate professor of political science. Tufts should expand its academic coverage of these issues to reflect the lived experiences of and issues present in the lives of Tufts community members, and it should advocate on the global stage for them and their loved ones’ well-being. 

In 2013, Kewser Wayit moved to the United States in pursuit of higher education, leaving his home and family behind in Atush — a small city in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China. But his pursuit of the American Dream was obstructed by the dark cloud of fear and uncertainty that formed as his family faced oppression at the hands of the Chinese government.

In January, Wayit, a student in the Graduate School of Engineering studying mechanical engineering, received news he had been dreading: His sister Kamile Wayit — at only 19 years old — had been detained by the police and sent to an internment camp.

This echoes the stories of millions of Uyghurs who have suffered years of oppression from the Chinese Communist Party. Often referred to by Uyghurs as “East Turkestan,” the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was established as a part of the People’s Republic of China in 1955. Although the region had historically been home to the Uyghur ethnic population, an increase in economic investment in the region in the 1990s led to an influx of Han Chinese migrants. Government-imposed restrictions and systems of surveillance in XUAR have since grown.

Since moving to the United States, Kewser Wayit has returned to Xinjiang several times to visit his family. Each time he returned — in 2013, 2015 and 2016 — the restrictions on Uyghurs grew more invasive. Upon his return in 2016, he detailed an established system for surveilling homes in the area. “[Local community center officers] would come to our house every single day and scan this QR code on the door and ask ‘is there any guest or relative besides the regular people?’” Wayit said in an interview with the Daily.

In 2017, the CCP began widespread detainments of ethnic minorities, the majority of whom were Uyghurs. Since then, it is estimated that between 800,000 to 2 million Uyghurs and other Muslims have been arbitrarily detained. 

Wayit’s father was detained in 2017 and was separated from his family for two years until his release in 2019. Wayit spoke out through social media in defense of his father, pleading for his release and criticizing the actions of the CCP. In return, after several threats from Chinese National Security agents urging him to remain silent on the matter, his family was forced to sign a document which prohibited all contact with him. Since 2019, Kewser has only been able to speak with his family a handful of times through calls closely monitored by a local National Security Agent, preventing him from sharing the milestones of his life with his parents and siblings. 

“Within those couple years … I finished college, I moved from Chicago to Boston, I got married, I am a dad now. A lot of things took place, but my parents aren’t even aware of most of my pain or happiness,” Wayit said.

Many Uyghurs like Kewser Wayit have spoken out against the CCP and faced similar retaliation as that toward his family. After these stories garnered global attention, the CCP was reported to have bent to international criticisms, claiming in 2019 to have closed their internment camps. However, in 2020 the Australian Strategic Policy Institute identified nearly 400 potential remaining internment camps via satellite imagery. 

Stories of disappearances and detainments throughout the region have persisted, including the recent story of Kamile Wayit.

When Kamile Wayit began college in 2019, her brother managed to contact her secretly via online messages on an app called Douyin. After months of contact, her account went dark. 

Wayit recounted their last interaction and learning of his sister’s imprisonment.

“When she returned home [from college] on Dec. 12, my dad picked her up and they were at the restaurant eating. … That was the last time I got a message from her,” Wayit said. “Since then, she disappeared. … Later on, I learned that she was actually taken and detained. … More than two months have passed since the last news I heard.”

He suspects her detention was related to her contact with him, and partially in response to her reposting a video relating to the recent White Paper Protests — which were incited by a deadly fire that brought into question the dangerous extent of authoritarian COVID-19 restrictions in China. Dozens of protesters across the country have been arrested for their involvement with the movement. With many of their whereabouts still unknown, the censorship from the CCP continues to hold serious consequences for those living under the regime.

Although the United States and other countries have declared that the actions of the CCP against the Uyghur ethnic minority amount to genocide, these condemnations have failed to halt the oppression of ethnic minorities. 

Activists like Kewser are now using the media to gain additional traction in their fight against the inhumanity of the CCP. 

“I have no idea what [my sister is] going through or how she’s been doing. I’ve been asking journalists who speak Chinese to call the police station. They either don’t pick up or they hang up once they hear they’re journalists or once they hear my sister’s name,” Wayit said. “I’m just trying to raise awareness because China is afraid of people’s power and it cares about its reputation [on the] international stage.”

Wayit hopes the Tufts community can help share his story and those of others against whom the coercive apparatus of China has been deployed. “I want people to learn that this is not something that is far away. Their fellow colleagues and students at Tufts are going through this kind of trauma,” Wayit said.

Student protests have the potential to support movements of change. In 2021, the Confucius Institute at Tufts was shut down following months of protest from student and community groups who criticized the institute’s role in China’s exportation of policy and propaganda. Wayit believes the same type of advocacy could help people like his sister. 

Advocacy for those like Kamile Wayit can include reaching out to officials in powerful institutions, signing petitions and connecting with local Uyghur organizations. In addition to being aware of the atrocities taking place throughout the world, there is a responsibility for those with the privilege of freedom to support those within our community and beyond who suffer from systems of injustice. 

Furthermore, Tufts — as an institution which seeks to promote civic engagement and social responsibility among its students — has a responsibility to facilitate an environment where students are encouraged to be informed and involved members of the international community. This kind of advocacy should include expanded course offerings which focus on contemporary injustices like the genocide of Uyghurs. It can also involve increased allocation of funding — particularly in departments like political science; international relations; sociology; or race, colonialism and diaspora studies — to research into these topics being undertaken by faculty and students.

Ultimately, the stories of people like Kewser and his family demonstrate how the effects of these issues of injustice reach beyond national borders. It is critical to recognize that we as a student body and Tufts as an institution hold a responsibility to the international community to advocate for the protection of human rights on a global scale.