The exiled head of the World Uyghur Congress says Uyghurs face a continuing threat to their existence because of repression by Chinese authorities in the northwestern Chinese province of Xinjiang.
Speaking at an annual conference in Tokyo, Rebiya Kadeer accused Beijing of "systematically" seeking to forcibly assimilate Uyghurs.
She called on the international community “to pay attention to the situation around human rights” rather than only pursue trade opportunities in China.
"The Chinese government systematically assimilates the Uyghur people while we're struggling for freedom and human rights and now we are facing existential threats," Kadeer said. "It's like a life-or-death struggle at a time when China is becoming a growing regional power; at a time when the international community is more interested in trade with China than human rights."
Uyghur activists and their supporters from some 20 countries have gathered in Tokyo for a five-day conference to press their case for independence.
Uyghurs say Chinese authorities are seeking to marginalize their existence by supporting the migration of millions of Han Chinese to their territory.
The resulting ethnic tensions have led to sporadic flashes of violence Xinjiang province in recent years.
Uyghurs, a Turkic-speaking nation of some 8.7 million, are an indigenous population of Xinjiang, which borders Central Asia, India, Russia, and Afghanistan.
Beijing says it has poured money into Xinjiang in a bid to raise living standards and boost the local economy.
Xinjiang authorities have also announced measures to try to spur employment. Reports say one official clause stipulates that all businesses and projects hire more ethnic minority workers. But Uyghurs say such rules are not always respected.
Kadeer said the indigenous population of China’s two other regions -- Tibet and Inner Mongolia -- face problems similar to what is faced by Uyghurs.
"You're witnessing dozens of Tibetan people immolating themselves and you see the Mongolians suffering as well," Kadeer said. "You see the Uyghurs facing extrajudicial killings, oppression, forceful deportations, economic exploitation, and destruction of their own culture."
China considers the World Uyghur Congress a "splittist" organization and has condemned Japan's issuing of a visa for Kadeer, who last visited the country in 2009.
Xinjiang, which in Mandarin means New Frontier, enjoyed a short-term independence twice: in the 1930s and in 1944-1949, under the name of Eastern Turkestan Republic.
Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters