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Writing History from Diplomacy: Western diplomatic views of the Eastern Turkestan Republic (1944-1949)

In one of the final events of the semester, the Central Eurasian Studies Colloquium 2012-2013 presented a lecture by Dr. Ablet Kamalov, Chief Research Fellow, R.B. Suleimenov Institute of Oriental Studies, Almaty, Kazakhstan. Dr. Kamalov, a visiting scholar at Indiana University’s Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center, gave a lecture entitled, “The Eastern Turkestan Republic (1944­-1949) Through the Eyes of Western Diplomats,” which presented an alternative history based on his research in the United States.

In the midst of the Second World War and a civil war in China, three districts of Xinjiang rose up in rebellion—Ili, Altay, and Tarbaghatay—in early November 1944. Following these uprisings, the Eastern Turkestan Republic (ETR) was announced on November 15th, 1944. This short-lived republic was unrecognized by other nations, but supported by the Soviet Union. It existed independently from China until 1949, with the conclusion of the Communist victory over the Guomindang in China.

The contentious nature of the ETR is reflected in the different ways its history is represented by different actors: Chinese history portrays it as part of the Chinese democratic movement; Taiwanese history describes it as a Soviet puppet regime; Soviet history casts it as a national liberation movement; and various Central Asian narratives present it as the national liberation movement of particular ethno-national groups.

However, Dr. Kamalov, inspired by the approach taken by “histories from below,” aimed to explore an example of the different types of histories that can be presented that complicate the dominant historical narratives.

Based on his research using archives of diplomatic correspondences from the British and American consulates based in Kashgar and Dihwa (Urumqi) in the early half of the 20th century, Dr. Kamalov traced the interests that motivated these Western observers. Their conclusions regarding the circumstances around the founding of the ETR added a new dimension to the usual narratives.

The primary interest of both the British and American diplomatic missions was watching the Soviet presence in the region. In the reports of their diplomats, which were based on travels and observations in the region in the mid-1940s, attempts were made to ascertain the degree of Soviet involvement and the aspirations of local people. In general, no obvious confirmations of Soviet intervention could be determined, yet the belief in their involvement persisted.

Based on these reports, Western diplomacy considered the 1944 uprisings and the founding of the ETR to be the result of Chinese misrule and mistreatment of local populations as well as Soviet involvement. Ultimately, the Communist victory in China and Xinjiang was accepted as an outcome in the conflict between Guomindang versus Ili leaders and between the Guomindang and Communists themselves. The ETR, in Western diplomatic eyes, was a puppet regime of the Soviets in spite of the lack of evidence to confirm it as such.

Sponsored by Indiana University’s Sinor Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, Central Eurasian Studies Department, and the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center.