The first East Turkistan Republic, officially known as the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan [Sherqiy Türkistan Islam Jumhuriyiti] was a short-lived state that existed from 1933 to 1934. It was the first successful attempt by the Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of East Turkistan to declare independence and establish a modern nation state in the 20th century.
The East Turkistan Republic was the primarily the product of an independence movement led by the Uyghur and other Turkic people living in East Turkistan, and was Turkic in character, including Kyrgyz and other Turkic peoples in its government and its population.
Following the sacking of its capital city of Kashgar in 1934 by Huis (Chinese Muslims) fighting under the banner of the Kuomintang Government (Republic of China) and Soviet intervention, the first ETR was overthrown on April 16, 1934. Its example, however, served as an inspiration for the founding of the second East Turkistan Republic a decade later and both East Turkistan Republics continue to influence modern Uyghur / Turkic independence movements aiming to re-establish an independent East Turkistan Republic.
Origins of the First ETR
Uyghur / Turkic national identity began to develop in the early 20th century following the establishment of modern schools by Uyghur and Turkic jadidists (reformers) who focused on technical areas of studies such as science, mathematics, history, and language studies. Jadidism emphasized the power of education as a tool for both personal and national advancement, which led to an intellectual inspired national awakening in East Turkistan by the early 1920s.
The Han Chinese rulers who governed East Turkistan following the fall of the Manchu Qing Dynasty became increasingly autocratic as they initiated sinicizaiton policies and removed even local Uyghur leaders from power replacing them with Han Chinese officials. Much like today, the people of East Turkistan were prohibited from participating in the hajj and practicing their religion.
In 1930, following the death of Shah Mexsut, the khan of the Qumul Khanate, the Chinese warlord Jin Shuren abolished the Khanate and began to seize the lands of Uyghur famers, giving them to Chinese colonists from Gansu. He later resettled Uyghurs into poor-quality areas near the desert and heavily taxed the Uyghurs. By 1931, resistance movements began to emerge in the area and a full scale rebellion led by Khoja Niyaz broke out in February 1931. The rebellion would soon spread across East Turkistan.
In 1932, Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi, a Uyghur intellectual and jadidist, would return to East Turkistan from India and persuaded the wealthy Bughra family in Khotan to support a rebellion against Chinese rule. Together, they sept up the Committee for National Revolution and by February 1933, Khotan and its surrounding areas had been freed from Chinese rule. On February 20, 1933 a provisional Khotan Government was setup with Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi as the Prime Minister and Muhammed Emin Bughra as the head of the Armed Forces. In the spring of 1933, the Kashgar Affairs Office of the Khotan Government was setup in Kashgar and developed connections to like-minded pro-independence Uyghur & Kyrgyz leaders in the area.
In September 1933, the East Turkistan Independence Assembly was formally established and published a scientific, political, national, and literary bi-weekly review titled Istiqlal (Independence) which was printed by the Swedish Mission Press in Kashgar. By October, 1933 all preparations for declaring an independent East Turkistan Republic had been made. Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi sent a letter to the Qumul rebellion’s leader Khoja Niyaz asking him to be the President of the new republic.
Formation of the First ETR
On November 12, 1933, over 20,00 people including some 7,000 troops gathered on the banks of the Tumen River in Kashgar to formally proclaim independence as the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan. The blue flag with a white star and crescent was introduced as the national flag, and the a national anthem was introduced and sung. Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi was declared the Prime Minister and he announced Khoja Niyaz as the President in absentia of the new independent republic. A Constitution containing 30 articles was read and a cabinet of 9 ministers was formed.
Although the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of East Turkistan endorsed Islam as the official state religion, it also guaranteed religious freedom. The jadidist leaders of the ETR focused on modernization and development, especially on education, health, and economic reforms.
Leadership of the First East Turkistan Republic:
President – Khoja Niyaz
Prime Minister – Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi
Deputy Prime Minister – Janibek
General Secretary – Alem Akhun
Defense Minister – General Mehmut Muhiti
Interior Minister – Seyidzade Yunus Bek
Foreign Minister – Qasimjan Haji
Education Minister – Abdulkerimhan Mehsum
Justice Minister – Zerifkhan Haji
Finance Minister – Ali Akhunbay
Agricultural Minister – Abulhesen Haji
Endowment Minister – Shemseddin Turdi
Health Minister – Ubeydullah Bey
After declaring the East Turkistan Republic, Foreign Minister Qasimjan Haji sent a telegram to Ankara via Peshawar officially greeting Turkey as the East Turkistan Republic. The ETR sought recognition and international support by writing numerous letters to heads of states and even sent emissaries to the USSR, Afghanistan, Sweden, Iran, Turkey and British India. In Afghanistan, the envoys met with King Mohammed Zahir Shah and Prime Minister Sardar Mohammad Hashim Khan who stated their neutrality but nonetheless sold them arms and sent Afghan volunteers to East Turkistan. The Soviet Union rejected the ETR, fearing that rebellion might spread into western Turkistan, which was under Soviet control, or that the ETR would give safe haven to Turkic Basmachi rebels fighting against the Soviets.
The First ETR had all the aspects of a modern state including a government with various ministries and a parliament, a standing military, even issuing currency and passports to its citizens.
On January 13, 1934, Khoja Niyaz arrived in Kashgar with over 1, 500 troops to assume the presidency and with him arrived Mahmut Muhiti, a prominent Uyghur leader and Major General from Turpan. General Muhiti was subsequently appointed as the Defense Minister of the First ETR by Prime Minister Abdulbaqi.
President Khoja Niyaz wrote a letter to China’s government in Nanjing reaffirming East Turkistan’s Declaration of Independence made by the Parliament of the People of East Turkistan in accordance to its free will along with the Constitution of the Chinese Republic of 1912 and Sun Yat-sen’s 3 principles which gave the right to self-determination for all people.
President Khoja Niyaz listed five principles for the first East Turkistan Republic:
- All of “Xinjiang” is part of the East Turkistan Republic, while all, that do not belong, should go back to where they came from;
- The Government and its economics will be administrated by the local people;
- All the oppressed people, living in East Turkistan, will have the freedom to pursue education, commerce, and build a new nation;
- The President of the Republic, Khoja Niyaz, will build a Government dedicated to the happiness of the people;
- The Republic with its various departments [ministries] will strive to catch up with other modern societies.
Fall of the First ETR
The Soviets grew concerned for various reason and intervened in the conflict between the East Turkistan Republic, the Republic of China (36th Division) and Han Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai, who was close to the Soviets. On January 24, 1934 with two brigades (some 7,000 troops), the Soviets invaded northern East Turkistan to assist Sheng Shicai in taking control of East Turkistan.
In late January 1934, the East Turkistan Republic was attacked by Hui (Chinese Muslim) military forces led by Hui General Ma Fuyang, fighting under the command of Ma Zhongying the commander of the 36th Division of the Republic of China (Nationalist China). Following heavy fighting between the army of the East Turkistan Republic and the the Republic of China, on February 6, 1934 the Government of the first East Turkistan Republic was forced to withdraw from Kashgar, with Prime Minister Abdulbaqi and most of the government relocating to Yengisar (Yengi Hissar) and Defense Minister Mehmut Muhiti withdrawing with most of the Army to Atush.
Kashgar was over run and some 8,000 Uyghurs along with several members of the British consulate in Kashgar were brutally massacred by the Hui (Chinese Muslim) forces of the Republic of China’s 36th Division. The ETR immediately sent couriers to its forces in Khotan asking them to urgently send reinforcements, which arrived in Yarkent in early March, 1934.
President Khoja Niyaz fled to the Soviet Union (present day Kyrgyzstan) via Irkeshtam and was captured by the Soviets. The Soviets pressured Khoja Niyaz to sign an agreement dismissing the East Turkistan Republic and disbanding its Army in exchange for unspecified prospects in the future. On March 1, 1934 notice of President Khoja Niyaz’s agreement with the Soviets was received by Minister Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi and his cabinet in Yengisar. The next day they convened a special cabinet meeting where they rejected the agreement and condemned President Khoja Niyaz as a national traitor.
The Huis fighting under the Republic of China began their siege of Yengisar in March and on April 16, 1934 Yengisar fell to Chinese forces. The first East Turkistan Republic officially fell on April 16, 1934, though others would continue to fight for many months later using the title of the East Turkistan Republic. Khoja Niyaz captured Sabit Damolla Abdulbaqi in Atush along with most of this cabinet and handed them over to Sheng Shicai.
By the end of 1934, most of East Turkistan was under the control of Chinese warlord Sheng Shicai and he created a “Xinjiang Government,”appointing Khoja Niyaz as the Vice Chairman and “Civil Governor for life” per the Soviets request. In a political move, Khoja Niyaz was forced to leave his army and relocate to Urumchi to take his new position, rendering him powerless. Mehmut Muhiti was appointed Military Commander of the Kashgar Region but was demoted to Deputy Military Commander by Sheng Shicai. He continued to retain command of the 6th Division, which was made up primarily of Uyghurs and was based in Kashgar and Atush.
Sheng incorporated the Hui Generals fighting under the Republic of China into his government and used them to crackdown on further Uyghur / Turkic revolts in the region. In 1935 a Uyghur uprising, known as the Charkilik Revolt, erupted in Charkilik county against Chinese rule and was brutally suppressed by Hui forces. Over 100 Uyghurs were executed along with the family of the revolt’s leader.
By 1937, Sheng Shicai had implemented a totalitarian form of governance. Much like the campaigns of today under Chen Quanguo, Sheng had turned East Turkistan into a police state. Hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs, especially people having the slightest connection to the former East Turkistan Republic or holding anti-China views were arrested and executed.
General Mehmut Muhiti organized a rebellion against Sheng in Kashgar and fled to India in April 1937, and later fled to Japan, where he lobbied the Imperial Japanese government to support independence for East Turkistan. His subordinates in Atush led by Kichik Akhun and General Abdul Niyaz liberated Kashgar and set up an independent government in late May 1937.
Sheng Shicai’s troops failed to suppress the uprising prompting the Soviets to intervene in August 1937 with 5, 000 troops backed by an armored regiment and an air unit. Abdul Niyaz was executed in September 15, 1937 and the rebellion officially ended in October 15, 1937 after the Soviets bombed Khotan killing the last of the rebels and causing over 2,000 casualties.
Khoja Niyaz was arrested by Sheng Shicai shortly after Uyghurs in Kashgar began to rebel in April 1937. Sheng executed Khoja Niyaz and some 120 of his followers in 1938 by labeling them as “counter revolutionaries”, “Trotskyites,” and “Japanese agents.”
The first East Turkistan Republic was the first successful attempt by Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples of East Turkistan to declare independence and establish a modern republic since the conquest of East Turkistan by the Manchu Qing Empire in 1884. Due to numerous reasons including Soviet intervention, treachery and treason among the ranks of state officials, invasion by the Republic of China (Nationalist China), and lack of international support, the first East Turkistan Republic was short-lived lasting about six months. However, it served as an inspiration and basis for the people of East Turkistan to continue to struggle for their independence. Exactly 11 years following the founding of the first East Turkistan Republic, on November 12, 1944, Uyghurs, Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, Tatars, and others would join together to declare independence once more as the East Turkistan Republic.
Both the first and second East Turkistan Republic(s) continue to inspire the people of East Turkistan in their struggle for independence today.