Joshua Kucera 3/07/08

A EurasiaNet interview with Rebiya Kadeer

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Rebiya Kadeer, a human rights activist for the Uighur people of northwestern China, spent six years in jail in China for “leaking state secrets” – in fact sending local newspaper articles to her husband in the US. She was released in 2005 and has since then made her home in the Washington, D.C. area, where she advocates for Uighur rights and for greater US support of Uighur issues. In 2006, Ms. Kadeer was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. She sat down for an interview with EurasiaNet at the offices of the Uighur American Association, just a block from the White House.

EurasiaNet: What do you believe is the greatest threat facing Uighurs in China now?
Kadeer: We’re facing an existential threat, that the Chinese government’s policies will eliminate us as a people. The Chinese government is immigrating millions of ethnic Chinese to our homeland. The Chinese government gave us the so-called autonomous status but never respected it, and transferred millions of their own people. Now you can see more Chinese than Uighurs in our own homeland … What China is doing is a frontal attack on our ethnic identity, culture and language.

What is the Chinese government’s motivation to do this? Is it fear of separatism, is it ethnic chauvinism or racism, or do they want to ensure control of the oil and gas in Xinjiang? It’s ultra-nationalism on the part of the Chinese government. And the Chinese government also sees the Uighurs as a threat to grab all the natural resources in our homeland.

Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and then later when the NATO forces went to Afghanistan, the Chinese government became more concerned about the Uighurs and intensified the crackdown. What’s disheartening to the Chinese government is that we are not Chinese at all. We don’t look Chinese, we don’t speak Chinese, everything is different, and that makes it hard for the Chinese government to justify its repression and occupation. What surprises me is that when I go to inland China, the Chinese in those territories are not that chauvinistic toward us. But the Chinese in our homeland, Xinjiang, are very antagonistic and belligerent; they are just trying to get rid of us. A lot of employment places openly say ‘We don’t want Uighurs.’ They openly say that now. That’s just pushing the Uighurs into a corner and suffocating them to death.

EurasiaNet: Politically, what is the right solution for Xinjiang? Do you advocate independence or greater autonomy within China?
Kadeer: We don’t trust the Chinese government. We were promised wonderful things when we were given autonomous status. We would be in charge of the natural resources, they wouldn’t increase the Chinese population, jobs would be first for locals, then for the incoming Chinese. They said they only came to help us, to develop our own country and culture. The Chinese government used autonomy as a noose to hook the Uighurs and hang them. You’ve seen the Uighurs now, we have nothing.

EurasiaNet: How can the Uighurs attain independence? Can you do it peacefully?
Kadeer: It will be just through peaceful means. Right now, our priority is to struggle for human rights, we’re not struggling specifically for independence. We respect the freedom of speech of our people; they can express what they want.

EurasiaNet: Do you think the Chinese government will respect nonviolence?
Kadeer: If the Chinese government doesn’t respect it, as time goes by the international community and others will recognize it. … If the repression goes to a point where we can’t control it, things may happen. So it’s in the interest of the Chinese government to recognize our peaceful efforts and negotiate.

EurasiaNet: You’ve said the Chinese government uses the threat of Islamic radicalism to crack down on Uighurs. But Uighurs in Xinjiang are very religious – do you think the potential exists for radical Islam there?
Kadeer: The Uighurs, even religious people, may stand up for their country, for their freedom. But not for radical Islam, it’s not part of our culture. … When people are pushed into a corner, [and] stripped naked without any kinds of rights, that kind of life may drive people to [do] crazy things.

EurasiaNet: Coming from former Soviet Central Asia to Xinjiang, it’s impossible not to notice how much better developed it is in China. Do you think Uighurs have gotten some economic benefit from being part of China?
Kadeer: If I tell you the Chinese haven’t brought us anything, you’ll think that’s a lie. So I’ll tell you they have brought us something: Once Uighurs were a very hospitable people who would slaughter a lamb for a perfect stranger. We were a peace-loving, music-loving, joyful people. So when our enemies came, we welcomed them like guests. So let me tell you what the Chinese brought us: The Chinese taught us how to resist them. The Chinese government brought the idea that you can not treat strangers with hospitality. You must have seen all the impressive skyscrapers – the Chinese propaganda is to show all of these tall buildings, that we have developed these poor, backward Uighurs. But those buildings and highways were built for the Chinese to enjoy, and Uighurs are eating the scraps.

EurasiaNet: It sounds like you’re describing a decline in Uighur culture. Is that accurate?
Kadeer: A lot of Uighurs are confused; this is a time of confusion for us. We live in fear, we can’t speak what is in our hearts, moral values have changed and that’s why we can’t see things clearly. We’re not the Uighurs of before. Poverty, repression and fear have pushed us into a corner where we don’t know what’s in front of us and what’s behind us. We just live in total darkness. It’s made everyone selfish and self-centered, concerned only about their own personal survival.

EurasiaNet: Is oil a blessing or a curse to the Uighurs?
Kadeer: Oil is a curse to the Uighurs. We wouldn’t have suffered so much if we didn’t have oil, and the Chinese wouldn’t be so interested in that land. If the Chinese authorities, since the oil comes out of our land, gave some of the revenues to the Uighur people for their education, for health care and things like that, then Uighurs and Chinese could leave in peace and they could still take out some of the oil. But that’s not the case. The discovery of oil increased the greed of the Chinese government and the repression of the Uighur people.”

EurasiaNet: What do you want the United States to do to help Uighurs in China?
Kadeer: First, we are very grateful for US support and we ask for continued US support for our organizations around the world. The Uighurs are neighbors of the Tibetans and we suffer the same repression. So we hope the US Congress would pass a law like the Tibetan Policy Act. The US government should put the Uighur issue on their foreign policy agenda and deal with the Chinese government directly.

EurasiaNet: Has there been a change in US policy towards Uighurs in China?
Kadeer: Yes, there are huge changes and progress made and we really appreciate that the US is supporting us in many ways. But we hope for more progress.

EurasiaNet: What kind of progress is being made?
Kadeer: In all the annual human rights reports there is a huge section on the Uighurs – in the past there was little or no mention of Uighurs at all. Also, there have been many hearings in Congress, I’ve testified at least six times about Uighur issues. And at a time when the Chinese government was doing everything in its power to demonize me and the World Uighur Congress as a terrorist organization, I met with President [George W.] Bush in Prague in the summer and President Bush expressed his support of what I’m doing. I was also able to meet with First Lady Laura Bush there as well. … To me, that means a lot, the meeting sends a powerful message to the Chinese government that the United States is supporting Uighurs. And the meeting also has given our people so much hope. They now believe the United States is behind them.

EurasiaNet: The world’s perception of the United States is diminishing now, are you worried about being perceived as being so close to the United States, as being American pawns against China?
Kadeer: We stand together with America, irrespective of how low its rating is in the world. Of course, the more credibility the United States has, the better for us. So our prayer is for the United States to have more respect and credibility in the world. We don’t think we’re a pawn for the US government. We are an orphan in the world, and now we feel like we are being adopted by this great nation. We believe the US reputation in the world will come back soon.

Editor’s Note: Joshua Kucera is a Washington, DC,-based freelance writer who specializes in security issues in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Middle East.

Posted March 7, 2008 © Eurasianet

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