Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader, tells a conference in Japan that the situation is now worse than it was in 2009, when Uighurs demonstrated and clashed with the Chinese authorities.
Ethnic Uighurs 'face fight for existence' against China, says leader
TOKYO // The Uighur people face a fight for their very existence against Chinese repression, their exiled leader said yesterday as a conference in Japan threatened to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Beijing.
Ethnic Uighurs and their supporters from around the world gathered in the Japanese capital for a meeting aimed at pressing their claim for freedom from what Rebiya Kadeer called China's intensifying crackdown.
"Before, we were fighting for our rights, we were protesting against China's oppression," Ms Kadeer said. "But now we face a fight for our existence."
"The situation is now worse than it was in 2009," when Uighurs demonstrated and clashed with the Chinese authorities, she said.
Many Uighurs complain that they are the victims of state-sanctioned persecution and marginalisation in their homeland in north-west China, aided by the migration of millions of Han Chinese into the territory.
The resulting ethnic tensions have led to sporadic flashes of violence in the Xinjiang region, which is home to nine million Uighurs.
Ms Kadeer told the conference that Beijing's policy of "forcible assimilation" was unacceptable in a modern democracy.
"The Chinese government says it is assimilating and eventually eliminating the Uighur people and other indigenous people ... meanwhile China is becoming a global power. We are peacefully struggling and hope the Chinese government will stop the repressing of Uighur people ... and take political reforms to change their authoritarian rule."
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, with one clause stipulating all businesses and projects hire more ethnic minority workers, but Uighurs say the rules are not always respected.
China considers the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) a separatist organisation and has condemned Japan's issuing of a visa for Ms Kadeer, who last visited the country in 2009.
The gathering came after the Japanese prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, met his Chinese counterpart, Wen Jiabao, and the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, in a summit focusing on economic ties and the region's response to North Korea.
Mr Noda and Mr Wen met on Sunday for one-on-one talks, but reports from Beijing yesterday suggested the Chinese had sought to avoid a second high-level meeting as a way of expressing displeasure over Japan allowing the conference to go ahead.
Lawmakers from Japan's centre-right opposition Liberal Democratic Party were at yesterday's meeting of the WUC, alongside an Italian and a Turkish politician, as well as delegates of the India-based Tibetan government in exile and US rights activists.
Later in the day Uighur representatives were expected to visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
The shrine is a hot spot in Japan's relations with its Asian neighbours because it is dedicated to 2.5 million Japanese killed in wars - including top Second World War criminals - and is often seen as a symbol of the country's wartime aggression.
The visit highlights the strange bedfellows that issues such as Uighur separatism can often create: Japanese nationalists and wartime apologists are apt to make common cause with those who are a thorn in Beijing's side.
"As Uighurs always visit places that are dedicated to people who died for their country, we organised a tour to the shrine," said Tomoyuki Hirose, a member of the Japan Uighur Association.
This year's conference is the fourth after previous editions were held in Munich and in Washington.
Ms Kadeer said participants from more than 20 countries were at the meeting, which she said was being held in "the most democratic country in Asia".
"We had hoped 200 or 300 Uighurs could have gathered here, but some of our delegates were not allowed to get visas because of Chinese pressure on their countries of residence," Ms Kadeer said.