Friday, April 1, 2011

My trip to Sydney, Australia for the 5th annual Uyghur Leadership Training Seminar: The Uyghur Issue in the Context of China's Democratization Process

Before I begin, if you don't know what "Uyghur" means and you don't know who "Rebiya Kadeer" is, then you should Google both terms/people, then continue reading.

Through the generous sponsorship of the Elliott School of International Affairs Undergraduate Scholars program, the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, and the National Endowment for Democracy, I had the opportunity to travel to Sydney, Australia from March 20-23, 2011 to present my working paper, "Ethno-diplomacy and the Transnational Uyghur Political Movement: A comparative study on China-Turkey and China-Kazakhstan relations", at a research symposium for Uyghur leaders. My trip to Sydney was the most fulfilling event in my academic career thus far. Not only do I now finally understand the significance of my research, I also left Australia with a more in-depth understanding of the role that the Uyghur issue plays in international relations and Chinese domestic politics, as well as a passion to continue researching and studying the Uyghur people and other ethnic minorities in China.

The symposium that I attended is one part of the annual Uyghur Leadership Training Seminar that took place from March 20-29, 2011 in Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Melbourne. Prominent Uyghur leader and president of the World Uyghur Congress, Ms. Rebiya Kadeer, thrice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, attended and spoke throughout the seminar. The general aim of the seminar is to provide the Uyghur community with the knowledge and experience necessary not only to raise awareness of the Uyghur issue in the Western world, but also to build its own capacity in the field of human rights and democratization efforts. As one part of the 10-day workshop, the World Uyghur Congress hosted activists, academics, and experts for a research symposium in Sydney. I presented my working paper during this symposium at the New South Wales parliament house on March 22, 2011.

When I arrived in Sydney, the president of the Australian Uyghur Association, Mamtimin Ala, picked me up at the airport and took me to the home of a Uyghur family. We ate breakfast together, along with the other presenters and participants in the conference, and I soon realized that I was among an extremely hospitable and friendly group. I was able to communicate in either Chinese or English with most the Uyghurs present.

Presenting at the New South Wales parliament house was a thrilling and rewarding experience. The day before my presentation, people raised their eyebrows and looked surprised when I told them that I was presenting my paper at the symposium. “You look young,” they said. "Are you a master's or a PhD student?" they asked, squinting at me. A couple of people even laughed and shook their heads in disapproval when I replied that I was an undergraduate. One of the other presenters on my panel looked at me as if I was unworthy of his time. Just for the record, all of the condescending comments were from American or Australian academics, not from the Uyghur leaders. Right before my presentation, I said to myself: “You have to prove to them that you deserve to be here presenting your paper, just like everyone else. You’ve worked too hard on this paper to be nervous right now.”

After my presentation the moderator interpreted my presentation into Uyghur, and I watched as many of the faces in the audience lit up and smiled. Several people looked at me and nodded in approval. After the interpretation, the moderator turned to me and said, “Thank you for your refreshing, optimistic, and new perspective on this important issue.” Afterward, several people told me that I raised pertinent and thought-provoking questions, offered interesting arguments and a fresh perspective on an old issue. Although everyone did not agree with my conclusions, my arguments spurred a lively discussion throughout the rest of the day. I also received helpful criticism and my interviews with Uyghur political leaders helped me reach new conclusions in my paper. The Vice President of the World Uyghur Congress even asked me to send him a 2-3 page summary of my arguments. He's going to translate it into Uyghur and publish it in a newsletter distributed in Turkey.

Although presenting at the conference was exciting, the highlight of my trip was making friends with the academics and activists from around the world, Uyghur leaders and Uyghur youth from Australia, and learning about Uyghur culture. Throughout the conference, I also had the opportunity to interview Uyghur leaders in the World Uyghur Congress, including the general secretary of the World Uyghur Congress, and network with Uyghur professionals and researchers. I also ate Uyghur food, learned Uyghur phrases, learned about Uyghur identity, culture and language, and gained a deeper understanding of the Uyghur perspective on the issue. I heard countless stories from Uyghur refugees and youth in Australia about their lives and stories from Xinjiang/East Turkestan.

As we headed back to the hotel on my last night, I thought about my return to the United States, and I knew I had a responsibility to pass along all of the stories I heard. I have been inspired to continue working on the dynamic geopolitics of Xinjiang/East Turkestan and China-Eurasian relations, as well as the human rights abuses ongoing in the region. Next week, I’m hosting two events with the Organization of Asian Studies to promote awareness of the Uyghur issue. On Monday, April 11th at 6:30 pm I will be screening the documentary of Ms. Rebiya Kadeer’s life in the Sigur Center (RSVP to and on Wednesday, April 13th I will be holding a Conversations with Scholars event for GW students ONLY at 12:30 pm in the Sigur Center with Professor Sean Roberts, Alim Seytoff, and Nury Turkel (RSVP to Please visit or email for more information. 

-Sarah Tynen
George Washington University Class of 2011
International Affairs and Asian Studies

Me presenting at the NSW parliament house, trying to look as old/mature as possible in my suit

Traditional Uyghur dress and dance, at a celebration on the first night for Uyghurs and Turks in Australia.

Most of the members of the World Uyghur Conference at the research symposium

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