Ili Prefecture is located on northwest of East Turkestan. Ili with 56,350 square kilometers in size is home to 2.99 million Uyghur, Kazakh, Tatar, Russian and other ethnic groups. Ili Prefecture consists of two large cities and eight counties and 97 townships and villages. Ghulja City is the capitol of Ili Prefecture. Illi Prefecture border with Kazakhstan to the northwest, Tarbaghatay Prefecture to the north, Aksu Prefecture to the south and Korla Prefecture on the east. Ili Prefecture is considered a mountainous and oasis region as two thirds of the territories are dominated by Tangritagh Mountains (Aka – “Tian Shan” in Chinese), Ili River and lakes. The spectacular sceneries of Tangritagh Mountains (also called “Tian Shan” in Chinese) attracts thousands of tourists each year around the world, boasting Chinese economy through tourism revenue. Like the rest of East Turkestan, Ili has rich natural resources such as natural gas, oil, gold and abundant water reserves and pastures. The climate is perfect for raising livestock such as sheep, cattle, horse and cultivating agricultural products such as fruits. China exports millions of tons of products from Ili to the rest of the world.
Due to Ili’s convenient and strategic geographic location, China and Kazakhstan set up International Free Trade Zones in “Korghas Pass” and “Muzat Pass” and they have become China’s first border free trade zones in land and very busy trade hubs in China. Following the improvement in China- Kazakh relationships, many Chinese and Kazakh businessmen trade their goods at those Passes daily, generating millions of dollars.
The Ili people have contributed tremendously to Ili’s economy, China’s GDP (Gross Domestic Production) and China’s recent development. However, the Ili people such as Uyghur and Kazakh people have not benefited from the economic growth and development but instead they have been marginalized. They still live below China’s poverty line even though Ili has abundant natural resources. The Chinese government steals all the natural resources by “exporting” them to China’s coastal cities, which does not make any Uyghur person wonder why China’s coastal cities such as Shang Hai, Tian Jin, Guang Zhou and Beijing have become so flashy, dazzling and very developed. The Uyghur people have paid a large price for China’s development and yet Chinese government continues to suppress them without mercy. Despite the China’s government’s brutal regime since the occupation of East Turkestan in 1949, Ili people have never given up their dignity and hopes for the liberation of East Turkestan. They fought with the Chinese government in 1951, 1962 and 1997.
The Ili people are well known for their braveness, ambition and diligence. They had fought for justice and they continue to fight for justice. They played a crucial role in the establishment of “Republic of East Turkestan” in 1949.
Background of Ghulja Uprising
“Ghulja Uprising” (also known as “Ghulja Massacre”) erupted on February 5, 1997 in Ghulja City (“Yining” In Chinese), the capitol of Ili Prefecture. Thousands of Uyghur youth marched on the streets of Ghulja and peacefully protested repression of Uyghur culture, Islamic practice and violation of human rights of the Uyghur people by shouting slogans such as, “ democracy and freedom for Uyghur people!”, “ China out of East Turkestan!”, “Stop illegal Chinese migrants entering into East Turkestan!”, “Stop ethnic cleansing and forced assimilation!” and “stop Chinese nationalism and give equal economic, political and religious rights for Uyghur people!”
Since the Chinese occupation of East Turkestan, the Chinese government has continued to carry out harsh and brutal policies all over East Turkestan. The government has violated the rights of the Uyghur people and suppressed the Uyghur culture, Uyghur education and practice of Islam. The government arbitrarily arrested, imprisoned and executed thousands of Uyghur people who expressed their opinions against the Chinese government’s unjust and unequal policies and banned “Mashrap”, a traditional Uyghur gathering where people play music, dance, recite poems and tell jokes. In order to dilute the Uyghur population and accelerate assimilation of the Uyghur people into Chinese culture, the Chinese government has poured millions of migrant Chinese from other parts of China into East Turkestan, carried out coercive “Family Planning” policy by forcefully aborting millions of Uyghur babies and sterilizing Uyghur women. Meanwhile, the government has placed the Chinese migrant workers with no college education in government organizations, state owned companies including oil fields and offered them tax free lands and relocation incentive bonuses while the government squeezed out Uyghur workers and Uyghur college graduates from their jobs creating high unemployment and poverty among the Uyghur people. As a result, Han Chinese population has grown a very fast pace making the Uyghur people a minority and strangers in their own land and marginalizing the Uyghur economy and culture. Due to the unjust socioeconomic status and political suppression and abuse, thousands of the Uyghurs took to the streets of Ghulja City on a freezing day, February 5, 1997 and peacefully expressed their resentment against the Chinese government’s repressive policy in East Turkestan. The Chinese authorities responded to the unarmed protestors by sending fully armed paramilitary police with batons, tear gas and high-pressure water spray from fire trucks and fired at the protestors indiscriminately killing and wounding as many as 576 Uyghur people. The protestors were disbursed on February 8. Chinese police chased the protestors who fled from their attacks and loaded them on to military trucks already stationed by the sides of the roads, and took them to different detention facilities in Ghulja for interrogation. When the police ran out of empty facilities in Ghulja, they sent several hundred protestors to a sports stadium and soaked them with cold water from a fire hose. As a result, several people developed frostbite in Ghulja’s freezing winter and ended up with amputation of hands, feet and or whole limbs.
Immediately following the “Ghulja Massacre”, the Chinese government arrested approximately 4,000 thousands Uyghurs on suspicion of participating in the demonstration. Of those, hundreds were executed and may others were sentenced to life time or lengthy prison terms after sham trails while others simply disappeared without any explanations. Some sources indicated that the Chinese government had arrested over 75,000 Uyghur people all over East Turkestan on suspicion of participating or supporting February 5th event. Meanwhile, the Chinese government shut down some businesses and factories were owned by the Uyghurs and non- Han Chinese. In addition, the Chinese government sold state owned unprofitable factories and business to migrant Han Chinese at very low prices. However, after a few years of operations, the Han business and factory owners ran away to other parts of China without paying the workers. As a result, over 14,000 Uyghur and Kazakh workers became jobless.