A deadly bomb and knife attack rocked the Xinjiang capital Urumqi last week as Chinese President Xi Jinping wrapped up a visit to the restive Uyghur region. Chinese state media said two assailants stabbed passersby and set off explosives outside the city’s largest train station, killing themselves and one other person and injuring 79. Releasing little information about the incident, the official media labeled it a terrorist attack by religious extremists. Rebiya Kadeer, president of the World Uyghur Congress, spoke to RFA’s Uyghur service on May 2 about the incident.
Q: Regarding the Urumqi rail station explosion, what message do you have to deliver?
A: First of all I would like to express my condolences for the loss of innocent lives. I also call on the Chinese government to take complete responsibility for the failure of its ruthless policies, which is what led to this tragic outcome. I ask the international community to look deep into the root causes which provoked this incident…. I call upon the international community to conduct a fact-finding investigation into this event.
Q: What would you say to the Uyghur people ... including those who oppose the Chinese government in a different way [from the World Uyghur Congress], or who might support [violent] groups or individuals?
A: The event has happened inside our homeland, [but] we … do not have sufficient means to communicate with, influence, or provide assistance to Uyghurs in regard to defending their human rights. At the moment we have only one independent Uyghur voice overseas, which is Radio Free Asia, and even getting this service is severely restricted. The few official and semiofficial media outlets which broadcast in the Uyghur language are under the total control of the Chinese government. So we can only lead Uyghurs living abroad, not those living inside the region.
What we have been doing so far and what we will continue to do is to deliver the message to the international community about the plight of Uyghur people, watch developments inside the region closely, and advise and recommend suggestions to the Chinese government regardless of whether it wants to listen to us or not. The Chinese government should give legal, political, social, religious, and cultural space for Uyghur people to exercise their rights peacefully and should respond to their sufferings and grievances with solutions that can address their fundamental needs.
Q: What do you have to say about the perpetrators of this event?
A: There are actually two groups who committed this event; the first is the obvious one, those who were present at the scene; the other, the real one, is behind the scenes. The one with the appearance of being the killers are those who took knives into their hands and put bombs on their vests but that is only the appearance. The true killers are those who pushed them to commit such an act, to give up their lives, to abandon any hope of being heard. And that is the government of Xi Jinping—the true terror-makers behind the scenes.
Those who benefit from the current crisis are not Uyghurs and not ordinary Chinese people, they are the so-called “security organizations”—those few high-level officials who use all manner of excuses to beef up security while they continue to enjoy their current lifestyles. In my opinion, when both Chinese and Uyghur peoples understand this point, that will be an important step in enhancing mutual understanding between these two peoples.
Q: So you have condemned the “true hidden players” behind the scenes. What about those who were actually on the scene?
A: As a human rights defender, I do not want to see Uyghurs associated with any terrorist movement or any violence, anytime, anywhere. Despite being an ethnic Uyghur and a victim of the violence [in the region], I am opposed to violence. I am against the path of violence. I do not call on Uyghurs—who have no weapons and no hope—to adopt violence. I think that path is counter-productive.
But ... the reality is that I couldn't do anything when Uyghur youth came out to demonstrate peacefully on July 5th, 2009 and were met with live bullets. The reality is that when last year, Uyghur youth stormed police headquarters, they were all shot on the spot without any attempt to detain them and try them in the court. The reality is such that last year, helicopters were deployed to bomb peaceful youth in Kargilik county while they were praying. And [all those times] I couldn't do anything about it.
If someone were to say to me today, "I cannot stand the oppression anymore, what shall I do?" I wouldn’t have an answer for them. That is why in this particular instance I do not condemn those who took part in this event. In order to condemn them, I would need to be able to demonstrate a better solution [to their grievances]. Instead, I can only express my regret for those who died and were injured, including the perpetrators. They too fell victim to merciless Chinese policies.
Q: The Chinese government characterized this incident as a terrorist action. What is your position?
A: First of all, in my opinion, the Chinese government, which was not democratically elected, doesn't have the moral authority to accuse others of violence. A government that oppresses [its citizens] and holds on to power by the means of violence cannot accuse others of terrorism.
The Communist government, which sent tanks to kills its own citizens on June 4th, 1989, has no authority to judge others. The Urumqi rail station event is certainly a tragic event, but consider past incidents such as those in Lhasa on March 28 [1959, when the Dalai Lama was replaced in Tibet] and in Urumqi on July 5th. Just recently RFA revealed the enforced disappearances of 37 individuals in the wake of the July 5th Urumqi riots—those 37 people were detained by Chinese police and went missing. The recent incident is not a greater tragedy than the plight of those missing people.
That is why I reject the Chinese government's stance of characterizing particular events— whether inside or outside China—as terrorism, since China itself has no moral authority at all to issue such statements.
Certainly, to an outsider the recent event might simply look pretty much like a terrorist incident. However, to someone who knows the region from the inside and has seen the policies the Uyghur people have to face, the real perpetrator would be obvious. A researcher would put the blame squarely on the Chinese government's policies directed at Uyghurs. This is exactly why China does not allow international media to investigate the event on the ground—if only they could, the truth would be clear.
Q: The Chinese side claims that the attackers had been religiously indoctrinated for a long period. In your opinion is this incident related to religion?
A: Religious oppression is one of the many forms of oppression Uyghurs witness. The Chinese government is trying to link this event with international terrorism and [religious extremism]. [But] the motivation behind this event is tied to political and ethnic issues. If this event is to be linked with religion … it should be linked with religious oppression by the Chinese state. … This incident has no links to religious indoctrination.
Q: In your opinion what in the reason behind the increase of violent resistance in the Uyghur region over the past year?
A: There are a thousand factors behind that. For example, state policies of detaining not only those who voice opposition but even those whom the state considers a potential troublemaker. The information blackout on the fate of the hundreds who were detained by police and went missing in the wake of the July 5th riots. The … so-called “bilingual education” in Uyghur schools, which in reality is the imposition of solely the Chinese language and … is directed at erasing Uyghur culture. The grabbing of Uyghur farmers’ land by Chinese state-owned enterprises and the relocation of the farmers. The recent shooting of a 17-year-old boy who ran a red light on his motorbike. The recent detention of Professor Ilham Tohti and Abduweli Ayup, who were calling on Chinese authorities to respect China’s own regional autonomy laws.
Q: Is there any concrete reason which might have been behind this incident?
A: It is hard to guess in the absence of the presence of independent media on the ground. If we are to guess, Xi Jinping’s words on combating terrorism—specifically the "strike the terrorists like rats" rhetoric used during his recent visit to the Uyghur region—might have provoked this reaction.
Moreover, when Xi Jinping came to power there was some hope among Uyghurs that there would be a softening of policies towards Uyghurs. But we have seen that recently in his meetings with security officials, Xi Jinping has drummed up support for "combating" terrorism in the Uyghur region. He has visited units in charge of suppressing Uyghurs and has extended his support for their actions. This has further alienated Uyghurs from the government of China. The statements by Xi Jinping which draw the smell of blood must have been a reason, I would suppose.
Q: Xi Jinping has called for the crackdown to be intensified. What will be the future impact of this incident on Uyghurs?
A: Since the occupation of East Turkestan, China has only been intensifying its oppression of Uyghurs. It has never eased its hold. The only difference is that whereas in the past it might have been doing it in secret from the world community, now it is all out in the open.
The biggest impact I am afraid this incident will have is on the relationship between the two ethnicities [Uyghurs and Han Chinese]—that the tensions between them will grow bigger and pass the point of no return. We are seeing the seeds of future bigger tragedies being planted now.
Q: Do you have anything in particular on this incident to address to the international community?
A: In today's world there is a widely circulated slogan, “There is no reason that cannot be used to justify terror.” It’s very good but not concrete. Instead it should be, “There is no reason that can be used to justify violence, including state interests, state integrity, maintaining [long-term] security.” None of these should be used to justify killings by the state of its own citizens, the genocide of its own ethnic minorities, or the legalization of state-orchestrated terror. No ruling, however just it might sound, will have a long-lasting legacy if it is one-sided and favors the powerful over the weak.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur for RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Kayum Mesimov.