Uyghur activist seeks talks with Beijing
By Catherine Makino
TOKYO - Following the bloody clashes in July in Urumqi, the capital of the restive Xinjiang region in China, Uyghur activist Rebiya Kadeer found herself in the midst of another controversy, having been accused by the Chinese government of instigating the riots.
The violent incidents stemmed from an incident in June when a brawl broke out between Uyghur and Han workers at a toy factory in Guangdong province in southern China. The Han are China's majority ethnic group.
In 1953, the Uyghurs made up 75% of Xinjiang's population, but their population has dwindled to 45% since Han Chinese began to settle in the area. Urumqi is now 70% Han, resulting in a lot of resentment among the Uyghurs, especially in the capital city.
Rebiya Kadeer, president of the Washington-based World Uyghur Congress (WUC), denies having been behind the riots that left nearly 200 dead and more than 1,000 injured.
The WUC is a federation of exile groups claiming to represent the interests of the Uyghurs inside and outside their homeland in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region of northwest China, which is rich in mineral resources and of strategic importance to Beijing.
The 11 million-strong Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim minority in China that has allegedly been subject to systematic oppression by the Chinese government.
Kadeer, 62, spent six years in prison for criticizing the Chinese government's policies in Xinjiang. She was freed in 2005 after pressure from the George W Bush administration, and moved to Virginia in the United States.
Dubbed "the millionairess", Kadeer has been ranked China's 34th richest person with a fortune of US$25 million. She built up and ran a multi-million dollar trading company and a department store in Urumqi.
Until her falling out with Beijing, she was on China's top political body - the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference - which represents people who are not members of the ruling Communist Party.
Her third visit to Japan last week to speak at universities and before non-profit groups coincided with the publication of her biography, Dragon Fighter: One Woman's Epic Struggle for Peace, in Japanese.
Reporter Catherine Makino caught up with her on Friday in Tokyo.
Inter Press Service: What have you been able to accomplish for your people?
Rebiya Kadeer: I brought optimism and encouragement to my nation.
My people are always worrying about China's ethnic policy. Many Uyghurs have been killed, and they are anxious about being driven out from their lands. We need one voice, and my voice is my nation's voice. I travel around world and ask the international community to protect the Uyghurs. I explain our problems to the world.
IPS: But how can your voice be heard when your people cannot reach you by Internet or by phone?
RK: We can't contact them by international phone or [the] Internet. In fact, more than 1,500 websites have been closed and their members arrested. They hear my words through Radio Free Asia [which also interviewed her in Tokyo]. Some people in Shanghai and Beijing hear my voice and then send it inside Xinjiang.
IPS: What do you hope to achieve in the next few years for your people?
RS: I want the release of 10,000 political prisoners from jail in Xinjiang, and to stop the torture and random killing of the Uyghurs. I want Chinese groups who are roaming the streets killing Uyghurs for no reason to stop. I also want Uyghur women to be returned back to Xinjiang.
IPS: What do you mean when you say Uyghur women should be returned?
RK: China moved more than 300,000 girls between the ages of 14 and 25 outside the Xinjiang province to work and assimilate into Chinese society. Some were sent to factories while beautiful girls were sent to work in hotels and bars. The Chinese government says it's for economic opportunities, but it's not true.
The girls are miserable and crying. They don't have any freedom and have no contact with their families. They are supported [by the government] if they want to marry inside China. Maybe the riots of July 2009 happened because of this policy.
IPS: Are more Han Chinese coming to Xinjiang?
RK: Yes, every day more and more Chinese migrants are coming to live in Xinjiang. They are the ones who reap the economic benefits.
I believe there are 20 million people comprised of various ethnic groups living in Xinjiang and 10 million Han Chinese, although the Chinese government denies it. The Chinese government must change their ethnic policy. I hope they will come on the table and talk with us. We want self-determination.
IPS: But the Chinese government alleges you have terrorist links - the reason perhaps why Taiwan refused to give you a visa?
RK: It wasn't the Taiwanese people, it was some people in their government with ties to the Chinese government - the Chinese told them I was a terrorist. I never ever had any links to terrorism. I am against all terrorists groups.
IPS: Why then are they claiming you are a terrorist?
RK: Because people are listening to my voice and I'm telling them the reality about what's going on in my country. The Chinese government wants to stop my voice. They can influence other countries by telling them I'm a terrorist.
I am a Muslim, so it is easy for them to say I am a terrorist, and maybe some people in other countries will believe it. They also say the Uyghurs are terrorists. More than 10,000 are in jail accused of being terrorists.
IPS: Is that what happened to the author of the short story Wild Pigeon? He was sentenced in 2005 to 10 years in jail for inciting Uyghur separatism.
RK: Yes. Nurmuhemmet Yasin wrote about a young pigeon - the son of a pigeon king trapped and caged by humans when he ventured far from home. In the end, he committed suicide rather than sacrifice his freedom.
Yasin wrote about freedom, so the Chinese government put him in prison for talking about it. They branded him a terrorist.
IPS: You used your wealth to provide for your fellow Uyghurs' education, employment and training through various programs. You ran the 1,000 Families Mothers' Project that helped women start businesses. Now that you are in exile, what is happening with these programs?
RK: The Chinese government completely destroyed and stopped my programs. Our children can't study and our people can't get jobs.
I hope [United States] President [Barack] Obama will talk to China about the Uyghur's problems.
IPS: Since you are living in the US now, are you worried about being assassinated? You were surrounded by heavy security in Japan.
RK: Yes, I worry about my security and I don't feel safe. In fact, when I was in America, I was involved in a car accident.
IPS: Are you saying the Chinese were responsible for the accident?
RK: Maybe. The Chinese are always giving me trouble. I'm not an enemy of the Chinese people or the government. I am only asking for the Chinese government to give the Uyghurs a chance to live our lives in peace.
IPS: How do you feel about having lost your businesses and living in exile?
RK: I am not sad and I don't regret anything. I am so happy that I opened the international community to the Uyghur voice.
IPS: Having sacrificed a lot for your people, what else are you willing to do for them?
RK: I hope to travel around the world to explain Uyghurs' problems, so they will begin to support our issues. I hope the whole world support our people's rights.
(Inter Press Service)