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Uyghurs Abroad Blame China Policies For Unrest


An image released by the U.S.-based Uyghur American Association of the clashes in Urumqi on July 5.
An image released by the U.S.-based Uyghur American Association of the clashes in Urumqi on July 5.
Current and former Uyghur activists abroad have rejected Chinese accusations of involvement in weekend violence that left at least 150 people dead, hundreds injured, and many more arrested in Xinjiang province, a heavily Uyghur swath of western China where ethnic and social frustrations run high.

Chinese officials blamed "separatists" in the Xinjiang autonomous region and Uyghur plotters abroad -- including the World Uyghur Congress -- for rioting that broke out on July 5 and quickly escalated before thousands of additional security troops were dispatched to get a handle on the unrest.

Uyghur exiles countered that the violence started after police opened fire on a peaceful protest. The exiles also said the rioting was an outpouring of anger over government policies and Han Chinese dominance of economic opportunities.

Police and other security forces continued their stepped-up presence on July 6, when reports suggested the streets were largely quiet.

But some clashes have since been reported, including between antiriot forces and hundreds of Uyghur women said to be protesting their husbands' arrests.

Official sources said more than 1,400 people had been arrested in connection with the violence.

In a telephone interview with RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service from his home in Germany, the vice president of the World Uyghur Congress, Asgar Can, downplayed Chinese allegations of involvement by his group in the unrest.

"If any protest appears in East Turkistan [the Xinjiang region], the Chinese government always blames the World Uyghur Congress for allegedly arranging those protests," Can said. "Instead of blaming us, the government should listen to the problems of Uyghurs in the region and give what our people demand from the government, and this kind of protest would never happen."

Can accused Beijing of persecuting Uyghurs through suppression of their Turkic language as well as religion and speech, population-control measures, and nuclear tests in their historical homeland.

"This protest is just a response to the inhuman treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government," Can said.

His group issued a statement condemning "China's brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest in Urumchi."

Major Minority

Uyghurs are thought to compose roughly half of the Xinjiang region's population of around 16 million.

In a historical context Xinjiang (New Frontier) is widely regarded as a part of Central Asia and, specifically, a region known as Eastern Turkistan. It became a tense hot spot following the implosion of the Soviet Union and newfound independence for five Central Asian republics in 1991.

As a result, clashes between the most outspoken Uyghur proponents of independence and Chinese authorities have been a frequent occurrence over the past 15 years or so.

Speaking after the latest unrest, Rozimukhamet Abdulbakiev, a former Uyghur activist in neighboring Kygyzstan, suggested the woeful rights situation was to blame for the kind of deep resentment that might have sparked the bloodshed.

"When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uzbek states became independent, the Uyghurs became especially eager [to pursue] their independence with a new strength -- this is what we're seeing today," Abdulbakiev, a former head of NGO Ittipaq (Unity) in Kyrgyzstan, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service in Bishkek.

"If the Chinese government were democratic and if it carried out political reforms, then this kind of harsh resistance would disappear," he added.

Abdulbakiev called the unrest "a political and social matter" with roots in Beijing's treatment of a beleaguered minority.

"Even though China granted Xinjiang the status of an autonomous Uyghur region, there is no sign of autonomy there. There are no rights for Uyghurs there -- nothing," Abdulbakiev said. "The Chinese totalitarian regime has suppressed all freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of personality, freedom of conscience [for Uyghurs] -- that is why, of course, people have risen against it."

Xinjiang is a major corridor for Chinese trade and energy ties with Central Asia, and is itself rich in gas, minerals, and agricultural production.

Other International Reaction

The latest violence followed a clash between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in the southern Guangdong province in June that reportedly left two Uyghurs dead.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon responded to the violence by saying differences must be resolved peacefully through dialogue. He also urged governments to protect the lives and safety of civilians, as well as freedoms of speech, assembly, and information.

Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano brought up the question of human rights at a press conference with his Chinese counterpart, Hu Jintao, in Rome. He said both sides agreed that “economic and social progress that is being achieved in China places new demands in terms of human rights.”

In London, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown urged restraint from all sides.

written by Andy Heil and RFE/RL correspondent Antoine Blua with contributions from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz and Tatar-Bashkir Services; with additional agency reports