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Interview: 'I Can't Say The Struggle Will Always Be Peaceful,' Says Uyghur Advocate Kadeer

Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer says she believes there will be more bloodshed in China, because the authorities continue to crack down on the Uyghur minority.
At a time when Middle Eastern dictators are feeling the heat, Central Asian autocrats are worrying about the future of their own governments.

Far from her homeland, Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer is busy in Washington, D.C., where she is organizing a plan to rally minority Uyghurs in China. She hopes that the move will promote Uyghur independence from Chinese rule.

The story of the Uyghur struggle topped the international press in July 2009, when the minority group clashed with Han Chinese in Urumqi. Kadeer regards the Han as colonists sent by the Chinese government to change the demographic balance of power in Uyghur territory.

To Kadeer, the 2009 bloodshed gives the Uyghurs added reason to move ahead in their struggle for self-rule. If not respected by the Chinese, this struggle may also include the formation of a government in exile to highlight the Uyghur cause. RFE/RL's Muhammad Tahir recently talked with her at her home outside Washington, D.C.

RFE/RL: Let's start with a question on current affairs. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was recently forced to step down. Do the events in Egypt have any bearing on your own struggle?

Rebiya Kadeer:
Although Mubarak has gone, people around him are still there [in power], so it's important that the people elect someone who will give them true democracy. The Egyptian people are still demonstrating in the streets; this is a good sign.

But one thing in these events pleased me: Mubarak didn't order the army or police to suppress the demonstrators. If [the riots] had been in China, they would have been bloody. Remember what happened on July 5, 2009 [in Urumqi]? The Chinese authorities cracked down on our demonstration and as a result tens of thousands of people were killed overnight. It was similar to 1989 in Tiananmen Square.

RFE/RL : Do you think Mubarak should be allowed to leave the country to live in exile?

He should be allowed. But first, he should respond to the demands of the people about his financial dealings during the last 30 years of the regime; then he should be allowed to leave the country.

RFE/RL: Do you think one day the same thing may happen in China?

We hope that one day the same thing will happen, but [if so] there will be huge bloodshed in China. Tens of thousands of people will be killed, because the Chinese authorities will suppress any such action.

RFE/RL: Coming back to your Uyghur cause. In contrast to Egypt and Tunisia, Urumqi saw bloody days back in July 2009. I think that was the first time -- at least in the contemporary history of the Uyghur struggle against China -- that things became so violent. Do you think that the once-peaceful struggle of the Uyghur cause is turning violent? Do you expect more of that kind of violence to occur back in your homeland?

I think there will be more bloodshed, because the Chinese [authorities] continue to crack down on the people [Uyghurs]. The situation is troublesome; several members of every family are in prison. The Chinese authorities are torturing and killing these people.
I think there will be more bloodshed, because the Chinese [authorities] continue to crack down on the people [Uyghurs]. The situation is troublesome; several members of every family are in prison. The Chinese authorities are torturing and killing these people.

By doing this, the Chinese [regime] is somehow forcing the Uyghur people to choose a more violent way. Therefore, I can't say that this will be always peaceful, but we are pursuing our goal with peaceful means. I've been asking the Chinese authorities not to force the Uyghur people to violence.

RFE/RL: What is the situation on the ground today?

The situation is deteriorating daily. East Turkistan and the Uyghur territory -- Urumqi and Kashgar -- look like a war zone. The Chinese military, armored vehicles, and tanks are everywhere. They are patrolling the streets. It doesn't look like normal life for the Uyghur people.

In the past, Chinese policy was the systematic assimilation of the people [Uyghurs], but after the July massacre, the policy was to pretty much wipe out the Uyghurs as a people, and the rate of execution is extremely high. Tens of thousands of people have disappeared and many more have been executed. The Uyghurs are at the top of the execution list in China.

Not Separatism, Self-Rule

RFE/RL: The Chinese leaders accuse you of separatism. Are you a separatist?

If your land is occupied by dictators, and people are massacred, and attempts are made to destroy the national identity of the people, then those who want their property back can't be considered separatists.

Some may think that it is separatism, but I don't call it that. That is the land of the Uyghur people; China occupied that land in 1949. China is an invader. It's not normal when an invading power accuses the people of its occupied land of separatism. If the Uyghurs want to separate from China, even then they shouldn't be considered separatists.

Two Uyghur women pass Chinese troops in Urumqi. Kadeer believes Beijing has no intention of living peacefully with the Uyghurs in China.

RFE/RL: Do you desire separation from China?

China conferred the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region upon us. They gave us autonomy but laws were never implemented. The Uyghur people were never happy under Chinese rule.
If your land is occupied by dictators, and people are massacred, and attempts are made to destroy the national identity of the people, then those who want their property back can't be considered separatists.

So what we're seeking right now is the right to self-rule and self-determination for the Uyghur people. So we will go forward [in our demands] based on the peaceful response of the Chinese authorities in a dialogue process.

RFE/RL: You've been living in exile for several years. Earlier you mentioned that contacting people on the ground isn't easy, so don't you feel that you are isolated from your people? And in this case, how can you be sure that your demands are relevant to people's needs on the ground?

There are some people whose demands aren't similar to mine. For example, I prefer to choose a path that can be acceptable to China, has less chance of bloodshed, and will take the people to freedom, because I don't want bloodshed. But some of my people have an absolutely different idea. Even if they don't like my way, due to their respect for me, they are restraining themselves.

RFE/RL: So what is their idea for going forward?

Their idea is full independence. They say if it causes bloodshed or costs lives, it doesn't matter. But I don't endorse them. So I'm holding back the people's momentum on this issue. I'm proud of my people; I'm grateful to my people for listening to what I'm telling them.

RFE/RL: Do you think the idea of full independence is gathering more momentum among the Uyghurs?

Yes, the demand for full independence is gathering momentum. If it was at 50 percent before the July 2009 massacre, now it's at 90 percent.

They say we shouldn't forget that we have had established states twice in the past century. They say that throughout history, we have had independent states. My people tell me that the Chinese authorities have no intention of living side by side with Uyghurs in East Turkestan; they haven't done this in the last 60 years.

Even if [the Uyghurs] say that we accept the autonomy status given by the Chinese and we agree to live together, they keep killing us. Therefore, the Uyghurs say, "Ms. Rebiya, you should forget the idea of living together with the Chinese people."

That's why I am calling on all the Uyghur leaders to meet on May 2 to discuss our future path. Among the participants will be Uyghur intellectuals, representatives of Uyghur youth, women, religious figures, heads of NGOs, as well as businessmen and businesswomen. All these individuals who act as representatives will gather and discuss all of these issues.

Too Many Governments-In-Exile

RFE/RL: Was establishing a government-in-exile ever in your agenda? One like the Dalai Lama has for the Tibetan people?

We will think about it in the future. Actually, we wanted to establish it earlier, but some Chinese agents announced a false government-in-exile. Therefore, they didn't give us a chance to implement our plan. Now there are two governments-in-exile. Actually, this was the work of the Chinese [authorities]. This was a step to prevent us from forming a real government-in-exile.

RFE/RL: Do you plan to put the idea of forming a government-in-exile on the agenda of the upcoming Uyghur congress in May of this year?

Yes, we will discuss this idea, but we won't form it right away. It may take two or three years to establish it.

RFE/RL: As I understand, for the immediate future you don't favor a struggle for full independence and you also don't seem to be in favor of autonomy. So what is your path for the future of your Uyghur cause?

If we ask for autonomy, we already have it, although the laws were never implemented. China says, "You've already been granted autonomy." But [on the other hand] they're massacring us. If we call for independence, China will say, "You're separatists," in which case the international community wouldn't intervene, saying, "You're separatists."

Therefore, we ask for self-determination. Our people are ready for dialogue under the autonomy status, which will allow us to determine our future [according to] our people. For example, the Sudanese [government] allowed its people to vote and determine their future. We also want the Xinjiang Autonomous Republic to be given the right to go to referendum, and state what they seek. But the Chinese authorities have already changed the demographics of East Turkestan. They brought millions of Chinese settlers who shouldn't have the right to vote.

What Has China Brought?

RFE/RL: How do you regard those Han Chinese, whom you say were brought by the millions by the Chinese government? Do you consider them colonists or brothers and sisters?

I see them as colonists, because they didn't come naturally; they were artificially transferred. They destroyed our ecology, they destroyed our trees and environment, they didn't come to live with us in peace, and they came to destroy what we had. On the one hand, they're imposing their dictatorship on us; on the other hand, we're not regarded as equals. We may be able to live together with some of them, but I regard the majority of them as colonists. When the time comes, some of them may leave the region automatically; if some of them decide to stay, we won't oppose them.

RFE/RL: Since the July 2009 bloodshed, the Chinese government says that it has invested millions of dollars into economic developments in your region. Do you see any changes in economic conditions on the ground?

Yes, since the July 2009 massacre, the Chinese government has invested massively in the region, but at the same time they also transferred millions of Chinese to our land, forcing the Uyghurs to give up their land to [accommodate] the Chinese. Those [Uyghurs] who resisted were put in prisons or driven away. [The Chinese government] builds lots of apartment buildings for the Chinese so that they can have a better life.

RFE/RL: Earlier, you were saying that the people whose property was confiscated include members of your family, brothers, and sons, and some of them are still in jail. If you look back, do you think it was worth it to start this struggle?

Yes, it was worth it. Tens of thousands of people are put in jail for this cause, so there is no question about its worthiness. [The Uyghur activists] knew that they would be persecuted; despite that, they joined this struggle.

Without a struggle you can't achieve anything -- haven't you seen what happened in Egypt? When the demonstration began in Egypt, there were only a few people. They probably didn't think that their struggle would lead to such a big achievement. Look at the situation in Tunisia; in the end, it was realized that it was worthwhile.