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East Turkistan, West Papua and an Extraordinary Game of Football

“For us, our passion for the game shows the world the skills and aspirations of our people.”

By Henryk Szadziewski for
East Turkistan, West Papua and an Extraordinary Game of Football
Credit: Edoardo Busti / Unsplash

On Saturday, October 19, 2019, fans across Europe will watch their favorite team play a game of football. Whether at the stadium or in a bar, they might wear a jersey or display a banner to distinguish them from supporters of other teams. It’s a ritual for many people around the world, a normal part of any weekend. 

However, on the same day, an extraordinary contest will take place in The Hague. Against a backdrop of intensifying human rights abuses in their regions, players and fans of the East Turkistan and West Papua “national” sides will have an opportunity to put on the shirts and fly the flags of their homelands at a football match. The game is the first for both the East Turkistan and West Papua Football Associations under the auspices of the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (CONIFA), an organization for teams representing “nations, de-facto nations, regions, minority peoples and sports isolated territories.”

East Turkistan (also known as Xinjiang) and West Papua are in the headlines. For years, the unrest and repression in these regions has inhabited the fringes of media attention. As unsettling details about the Chinese government’s mass internment of Uyghurs and other Turkic peoples, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, have emerged from Xinjiang, so has worldwide interest in the region. Amid reports of political indoctrination, enforced disappearances and torture in the facilities, experts estimate at least one and a half million individuals have been interned since 2017. In West Papua, unrest sparked by racist slurs following an alleged incident involving Papuan students in Surabaya in August 2019 has reopened decades of resentment against the Indonesian state. Demands for equality and self-determination have been met with violence and the death of Papuan protestors.  

Although the complex historical backgrounds and social contexts of these situations vary, the two regions share some features. Both, for example, are coveted for their natural resources. Many of the inhabitants claim an affinity toward an external region, either Central Asia or Melanesia, and language and religion are suppressed markers of difference from the majority. The mechanisms of state control and repression also compare. Papuans and Uyghurs have become alarmed at large numbers of settlers in their regions and broad social exclusion based on their ethnicity. The internet shutdown in West Papua this year has its precedent in the 10-month communications blackout following the 2009 unrest in Urumqi.    

A further sign of their shared experiences is the way in which Uyghurs and Papuans have been characterized for their athleticism. As a byproduct of their marginalization, Uyghurs and Papuans have excelled as sportspeople, particularly football. Papuan football players have featured in Indonesia’s national team, including Boaz Solossa and Okto Maniani. The Papuan-based Persipura Jayapura are multiple winners of Indonesia’s top tier league  and PSBS Biak represents the region at the second level of the football system. This success has happened despite the lack of investment in developing young talent. As one coach in Sorong told AFP: “Whether it’s a small field or a field with a three-meter goalpost, the children of Papua are used to playing soccer everywhere.” Nevertheless, Papuan players have leveraged this slice of visibility to voice their unease about the racism of the Surabaya incident and in Indonesian society. 

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Uyghurs too have received national recognition in China. Defensive midfielder Mirahmetjan Muzepper broke into the Chinese national team in 2018 after playing for China’s youth teams. However, some Uyghur players have not been so fortunate. In 2018 also, Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service reported the disappearance of Erfan Hezim into an internment camp. Erfan had represented China at the Under 19 level and signed a five-year contract with the Chinese Super League team Jiangu Suning. He was allegedly taken for “visiting foreign countries” and released after 11 months in detention. He is now playing for Shaanxi Chang’an Athletic in Chinese soccer’s second tier of professional football. In 2019, a second Uyghur football player, Erpat Ablekrem, was sent to an internment camp.

Football has not only provided one of the few routes to success for Uyghurs and Papuans, but also a platform for fans to express overt or tacit dissatisfaction with the state. At Indonesian league games hosted in West Papua the crowd jeer the national anthem from the stands. During the 2012 season, the now defunct Xinjiang Haitang averaged a crowd of 29,000. This number might not seem that remarkable, but this was in the Chinese third tier, where attendances ranged from 100 to 5,000 and occurred at a time of official suspicion at even small gatherings of Uyghurs. In private, Uyghurs are known to get behind any team that plays against China.

In exile, there has been greater room for identity expression and football has been a key outlet. Uyghurs are spread across North America, Europe, Central Asia, and Oceania. In the different countries where they live, Uyghurs have organized nationwide football tournaments for teams from different cities. This framework extended to organizing a “East Turkistan Freedom Cup” for representatives from each nation that has now been held three times. 

The East Turkistan Football Association (ETFA) was established out of these efforts to capture a single “national” team to play internationally. A group originally applied as Uyghur United, and in 2019, with the agreement of nine national Uyghur leagues around the world, it was amended to ETFA. One of the founder members, Amanalla Kashagri, a cosmopolitan Uyghur who started life in Urumqi, grew up in the United States, and now lives in Europe. He said in an interview that it was important for the association to be named “East Turkistan” to include all the peoples of his homeland, such as Kazakhs and Kyrgyz: “Our first two republics, established in the 20th century, were called the Republic of East Turkistan. We share the same Turkic roots and we are one nationality, East Turkistanian.” He added: “All of us have experienced questions about our background whether under repressive conditions in China or in the multiculturalism of the United States and Europe. Organizing a football association gives us an opportunity to nurture a sense of belonging across the globe. It was my childhood dream to represent East Turkistan since we have no representation of any kind on the international stage. Now we have made it a reality for the next generation.”  

Likewise, West Papua has featured in representative football in competitions organized by the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) in 2005 and 2017. A team based in Australia also plays as West Papua. Simon Sapopier and Jeroen Zandberg were behind the formation of the West Papua Football Association. In his role at UNPO, Zandberg helped facilitate the participation of West Papua in the 2015 and 2017 tournaments and worked with team coach Sapopier on the CONIFA application. Zandberg told The Diplomat: “Football provides an accessible way to teach others about the West Papuan identity and to highlight the ongoing situation. It is a way to show the world you exist.”

The inspiration for the formation of the new associations has been CONIFA. As Amanalla commented: “As soon as a group of us heard about CONIFA, we jumped at the chance to apply for membership.” The organization was founded in 2013 after a previous attempt at structuring “non-FIFA” international football, the N.F.-Board, became defunct. To date, CONIFA has organized three “World Football Cups” and three “European Football Cups.” The 2018 World Football Cup held in London comprised 16 teams including Tuvalu, Tibet, and Cascadia. Writer James Hendicott calls this “Football for the Forgotten.”

CONIFA appears to fit into an expanded version of Panayotis Soldatos’ concept of “paradiplomacy.” That is the engagement of non-sovereign entities, such as subnational governments, non-governmental organizations, and private sector actors, in international relations. Using the paradiplomacy framework, academic Ario Bimo Utomo writes “ConIFA qualifies as a paradiplomatic actor in the sense that it has two forces: horizontal and vertical. Horizontally, it platforms its members to interact with like-minded counterparts through numerous activities. Vertically, ConIFA also possesses a comparative advantage to reach a wider audience by framing the issue through sport.” Utomo concludes that CONIFA’s restricted influence limits political advocacy on behalf of its members. 

However, Paul Watson, CONIFA’s member development director and author of Up Pohnpei, a book about his experiences coaching the Federated States of Micronesia national football team, argues political activism is not the purpose of the group. In an interview he said: “CONIFA tries not to speak about political events because we are an apolitical organization…CONIFA is proud to allow everyone to express their identity and this feels especially valuable when identities are denied by external powers. We believe that everyone should have the right to play football for the identity they feel best represents them and in the FIFA system that is not possible for either team, so we are there to provide that platform.” 

On October 19, the pride in representing identity will be front and center. Amanalla, whose family has felt the impact of the internment camps told The Diplomat: “People become interested in football for many reasons, as a hobby, for fame, or for money. For us, our passion for the game shows the world the skills and aspirations of our people. We want the world to see who we are for what we are and not how the Chinese government portrays us. It is important that we keep our identity alive as East Turkistanians.” 

At the West Papua Football Association, Zandberg voices similar sentiments: “We want to put across a positive image that contrasts with the Indonesian government’s version of Papuans as ‘violent.’ We choose to display ourselves not as victims, but as a people with ability and strength. In difficult times, it is important to be positive and we hope our players and fans will take pride in our shirt.”

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Henryk Szadziewski is a senior researcher at the Uyghur Human Rights Project and a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.