An exile group has rejected a claim by Beijing that Muslim Uyghur separatists are fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government alongside Al Qaeda and other extremists, saying it was part of an attempt to link the ethnic minority to terrorist acts.
The Istanbul-based Eastern Turkestan Education and Solidarity Association (ETESA) denied that any Uyghurs had traveled to Syria to join in the fighting.
The ETESA accused the Chinese authorities of fabricating a link between it and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a group which seeks independence for China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and which is designated a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United Nations.
“The ETESA ... strongly rejects [the] Chinese government’s false accusations,” the statement said.
“The Chinese government [is] trying to [involve] legal East Turkestan organizations in ... so-called terrorism,” the statement said, noting that the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress had also come under attack from Beijing for allegedly supporting pro-independence movements within Xinjiang.
Earlier this week, China’s official Global Times cited unidentified anti-terrorism authorities as saying that Uyghur minority radicals had been traveling to Syria since May to join the fighting on trips organized by groups opposed to Beijing's rule over Xinjiang.
It identified ETIM and ETESA as among the groups, saying they were funding their activities through drug and gun trafficking, kidnapping and robbery, and providing training for “separatists, criminals and terrorists” who had fled Xinjiang.
China’s Foreign Ministry in response to the report called for stronger international cooperation in dealing with organizations seeking to overthrow Chinese rule in Xinjiang, saying such groups “not only damage China's state security, but threaten other countries' peace and stability.”
The ETESA said it has been legally formed under the approval of the Turkish government with a mission to educate Uyghur youth in political and strategic studies related to events both inside and outside of Xinjiang.
“ETESA is not a terrorist organization. The association does not have any links with Al Qaeda [and] no relations with Al Qaeda. It is not associated with any terrorist organization at all,” it said.
“We again deny and condemn any kind of effort to engage our association to any other organization.”
The ETESA also denied that Uyghurs had ever taken part in efforts to destabilize other countries and claimed that no Uyghurs had ever participated in violent terrorist actions against anyone or any government, including the Chinese government.
While foreign fighters have joined in the 19-month-long Syria conflict that has killed more than 35,000 people, the presence of fighters from China has not been previously reported.
“Contrary to the Chinese government’s accusation, the Uyghurs have never interfered with any country’s internal affairs,” the group said.
“East Turkestani [Uyghur] people never consider[ed] other nations and other people as their enemies,” it said, adding that the only “enemy” of the Uyghurs is the Chinese government because of the oppressive policies it has put in place to govern Xinjiang.
Uyghurs in Xinjiang often complain of policies favoring Han Chinese migration into the region and what they call the unfair allocation of resources to Chinese residents.
Xinjiang was home to two short-lived East Turkestan republics in the 1930s and 1940s.
ETESA said that the Chinese government was actively spreading “false news” about the Uyghurs and Uyghur organizations in order to “isolate” them from the international community.
“The Chinese government’s purpose is to destroy the reputation of Uyghur organizations,” it said.
“In this way the Chinese government believes that the Uyghurs’ cause will not gain support from the international community and Uyghur issues will [remain unresolved] forever.
Reported by Shohret Hoshur of RFA’s Uyghur service and Joshua Lipes.