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Commentary: Chinese Scholar Mambetturdu, Suspected Internment Victim, Needs Support

Tynchtybek Choroteghin (left) with the Chinese scholar and author of Kyrgyz descent, Mambetturdu Mambetakun

Many of us were concerned when a rights activist tweeted in October 2018 that a Chinese scholar and author of Kyrgyz descent, Mambetturdu Mambetakun, had been sent to a "concentration camp" earlier that year. "Whereabouts unknown," it concluded.

I was particularly alarmed. I had met Mambetturdu, respected him greatly, and had been trying unsuccessfully to contact him by telephone in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) since the spring.

I read and reread the tweet, by Uyghur activist Abdugheni Sabit, warning of Mambetturdu's disappearance.

To describe where the 53-year-old scholar, author, and poet had purportedly been interned since "early in 2018," Sabit had used the term "concentration camp" -- a phrase that extended as well to the ideological prisons of the Stalin era in the U.S.S.R. and during Mao's Cultural Revolution in China.

But as recently as August 2018 I had spoken to Chinese scholars at an international forum for Altai studies in Bishkek, and they had told me that Mambetturdu was alive, well, and still working.

So, the information about Mambetturdu's detention many months earlier must be untrue, I thought.

I once translated into Kyrgyz a portion of the memoirs of the youngest daughter of Deng Xiaoping, Mao Zedong's successor and architect of the market-economy reforms that ushered in China's current era.

From Deng Maomao's writing, it seems clear that an "ideological upbringing" in China in 1966-75 in many ways resembled that of the Soviets under Josef Stalin.

Had Xinjiang stepped back into the past, back into an era of obscurantism?

I phoned again.

No one picked up the phone in Urumqi, Xinjiang's administrative capital.

But I finally reached a Kyrgyz scientist working in Beijing. After polite greetings, I asked bluntly, "I've heard rumors that Professor Mambetturdu Mambetakun was detained and sent to a 'reeducation camp' in early 2018."

"No, that's not true. I personally met with Mambetturdu two months ago," the scientist said confidently.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Another source had seemingly confirmed what I heard in August, and Mambetturdu had been seen only recently. And there was more: Since the beginning of 2018, Mambetturdu had reportedly been active at various academic and cultural events in China dedicated to the centenary of the birth of Jusup Mamay, a popular 20th-century teller of the traditional Kyrgyz epic of Manas, and 90 years since the birth of the late Kyrgyz writer Chinghiz Aitmatov.

The report from Beijing had been encouraging.

But, by early November, I was hearing that Mambetturdu hadn't been seen at his research and education center in Xinjiang for over a month. I couldn't find anyone who had any recent contact with him.

I was left to speculate: Could Professor Mambetturdu have been sent to eastern China on business?

Maybe there was no reason to panic.

'Reeducation Camp'

After those statements contradicting the report of his disappearance "early in 2018," we wanted to believe that such an outstanding scholar was still a respected authority in Urumqi.

But, to our great regret, there is further evidence that Mambetturdu has been at a "reeducation camp" in recent months.

And no one has heard from or seen him in that time. It seems fears of him being confined to a camp in Xinjiang are real.

Like him, many thousands of others have vanished or been separated from their families due to dramatic changes in China's policies regarding ethnic minorities -- predominantly Muslim -- over the past two and a half years.

The fate of so many of China's Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and even Hui (ethnic Chinese Muslims) forcibly taken to the reeducation camps is part of a much larger campaign in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China.

China claims the camps are for vocational education and training, and denies people at the centers are abused or mistreated despite thousands of reports and testimonies from internees.

Accomplished Writer

It would be such a shame for that to have happened to such an outstanding scholar and public figure.

The Xinjiang Normal University professor, head of the Xinjiang research center for the Epic of Manas, and Turkologist is recognized outside of his native northwestern China.

His works have been published in Chinese, Kyrgyz, Turkish, English, and other languages, and are scrupulously studied by writers, historians, ethnographers, folklorists, and Turkologists around the world.

Mambetturdu is also an accomplished writer. One of his poems, Biz (We), written in 1990, is a quintessential modern version of a centuries-old Kyrgyz epic.

More than 200,000 ethnic Kyrgyz currently live in China. An opera version of Manas was successfully staged in Beijing in 2018, based on the epic Kyrgyz tale as told by Mamay and with a libretto written by Beijing scholar Adil Jumaturdu, who like Mambetturdu comes from the Kizilsu Kyrgyz Autonomous Prefecture in Xinjiang. The same show was scheduled for Bishkek in June 2019.

Mambetturdu is also known within the academic community as a good organizer. He has attracted foreign collaborators to modern research on the Epic Of Manas in China, as well as to Kyrgyz and to Kyrgyz folklore studies in particular.

Mambetturdu has also helped organize student exchanges between Kyrgyz and Chinese universities and joint folkloric and ethnographic expeditions between 2012 and 2017.

I recall with gratitude the support and assistance of Mambetturdu's Xinjiang Center for Research on the Epic of Manas and other Chinese institutions during my own visit with a group of scholars.

I am deeply convinced that official Bishkek and official Beijing highly value Mambetturdu and other Kyrgyz scholars as multifaceted experts who, like Mamay, represent a bridge of friendship between China and Kyrgyzstan.

I also cherish the hope that the governments of both states won't persecute such scholars but rather treat them with respect and support their academic endeavors.

I hope the Kyrgyz government continues to officially invite Mambetturdu as an honored guest to academic and cultural conferences and other events in Kyrgyzstan.

And, as a good neighbor and partner within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), perhaps official Beijing could support Bishkek in that regard and continue to sponsor Mambetturdu's projects within the scope of Chinese academic cooperation with Kyrgyzstan.

This piece was originally published on November 15, 2018. Membetturdu was still missing in January 2020, according to family members.
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    Tynchtykbek Chorotegin

    Tynchtykbek Chorotegin (Tchoroev) is a Kyrgyz historian, publicist, and journalist who served as the director of RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service from 2003 to 2010. He is currently a professor at the Kyrgyz National University.