More attention being paid to a group long ignored because of historical sensitivities

The 1962 India-China war rarely finds mention in the Chinese media, with the much-forgotten event still seen here as a sensitive chapter in bilateral ties.

Unlike the decorated Chinese veterans of the Korean War — an event that has received much space in the Communist Party’s propaganda narratives over the decades — relatively little attention has been paid to soldiers who fought in the Himalayas a decade later, in a war that China has, as the aggressor, long sought to bury.

If the Chinese veterans of 1962 are a forgotten lot, even less due has been paid to the minority Tibetans and Uighurs from Xinjiang who were conscripted into the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ahead of the war.

Many would lay down their lives for a government that was, at the time, facing widespread unrest and opposition to its policies as it struggled to consolidate its still unsure control over both regions.

This week, however, the Communist Party-run Global Times, a widely read tabloid, published a rare article paying tribute to minority Uighur veterans who fought in 1962. The Uighurs are an ethnic Turkic Muslim minority in China's far-western Xinjiang region, which today shares a border with the disputed western section of the boundary and the Aksai Chin region (most of which is currently administered by China under the Xinjiang “autonomous region”).

The Global Times report told the story of a 69-year-old Uighur veteran, Aimer Yiti, who, 50 years after the war, spends his days watching over the graves of 211 Uighur veterans located in Yecheng, a town southeast of the Silk Road border town of Kashgar.

Mr. Yiti was, last year, recognised by the official Xinhua news agency among a group of “people who moved China”, in a suggestion that the authorities are now beginning to pay more attention to a group they had earlier ignored largely on account of historical sensitivities.

“As a former soldier who guarded his country and then guarded martyrs for decades, he deserves all of our respect,” Song Yangbiao, a journalist from the Time Weekly, told the newspaper.

In China, little has been written about the Tibetans and Uighurs who fought in the war. The years before 1962 saw widespread riots in Tibetan areas as the Communist Party's forced land reforms evoked strong opposition. And only months before the Chinese offensive of October 1962, tens of thousands would flee Xinjiang, crossing the border into the Soviet Union, to escape violence, persecution and famine.

Wu Dengming, a Han Chinese veteran who was, before the war, posted in Medog in Tibet, close to the border with India, recalled to The Hindu in an earlier interview the social upheavals that his country was

witnessing in the lead up to 1962, as a result of Mao Zedong’s calamitous Great Leap Forward and the consequent famine. The upheavals in Tibet and Xinjiang were, at the time, even more acute.

“My company commander went back to his hometown, and saw that not only were the people starving, the animals were starving too,” Mr. Wu recalled. “The pigs didn’t have enough food so they were as small as

mice. And when he talked about this in the Army, he was fired and sent to reform through labour”.

Mr. Yiti, the Uighur veteran, fifty years on after the war, still takes seriously his responsibility to manage the graves of fallen Uighur soldiers at Yecheng. He is now assisted by his son. The Uighur soldier joined the PLA when he was only 16 and was posted to Hotan, located southeast of Kashgar. He recalled that his best friend, Simayi Memeti, was posted in Tibet during the war, and lost his life.

“I was lucky to survive the war, otherwise I would be lying here with them,” he told the Global Times. “So I can’t let them lie here lonely.”

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