WASHINGTON—Exiled leaders of the Uyghur ethnic group, the other large, restive minority in western China, are expressing support for protesting Tibetans, but experts say that's unlikely to spark a parallel wave of Uyghur unrest.
Uyghur American Association president Rebiya Kadeer, a self-made businesswoman in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region who spent five years in jail for subversion, has accused the Chinese authorities of “atrocities” and defended the Tibetans’ right to protest peacefully.
“His Holiness the Dalai Lama has dedicated his entire life to the peaceful promotion of legitimate aspirations of the Tibetan people for cultural autonomy and survival,” she said, referring to the exiled Tibetan leader.
“The world community cannot turn a blind eye to the obstinate refusal of the Beijing regime to fully engage in open, serious, and meaningful negotiations with leaders of Tibet and East Turkestan,” Kadeer said, using the Uyghurs’ own name for China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Beijing’s heavy-handed control over the millions of Tibetan and Uyghur people in China—its “fierce repression of religious expression, policies aimed at cultural assimilation, and intolerance for any expression of discontent, no matter how peaceful, have led to tremendous social tensions in Tibet and East Turkestan,” Kadeer said.
Kadeer met Tibet's exiled leader, the Dalai Lama, for the first time in 2005, soon after Kadeer was paroled and expelled from China to the United States. The met on stage in front of some 16,000 people at the Washington DC’s MCI Center.
Dolkun Aysa, chairman of the Eastern Turkestan Union in Europe and general secretary of the World Uyghur Congress, led a three-hour protest in Munich on March 18 to show solidarity with the Tibetans.
“The main purpose of this demonstration is to show solidarity and cooperation between Tibetan and Uyghur people and to inform the world” about Chinese repression, Aysa said in an interview with RFA’s Uyghur service.
“We are cooperating with Tibetans to organize demonstrations expressing our full support for the Tibetan people, while at the same time informing the public and the media regarding the existence of the same problems, the same political reality, and the same suffering of the Uyghur people in Eastern Turkestan,” he said.
Rustam, a Uyghur participant in a Tibetan protest march to the Chinese Embassy in Washington, echoed the sentiments of many overseas Uyghurs when he voiced sympathy for the Tibetans.
“The Uyghurs and the Tibetans are oppressed, and the Chinese government uses all methods to oppress our people,” he said. “That’s why we are supporting the Tibetans....We just need freedom.”
Experts on Chinese ethnic minorities, interviewed this week but unwilling to be identified for fear of losing access to sources in China, doubt such declarations mean the violent unrest in Tibet will spread to the mainly Uyghur region of Xinjiang.
Overseas Uyghurs “probably hope that Uyghurs inside Xinjiang will take inspiration” from the protests in Tibet, one American scholar with vast experience in the region said.
“I think the Chinese government is really worried about that. And I think it’s highly unlikely that they will…The Chinese government has made clear in the way it cracked down on Tibetans that it’s still operating in a Tiananmen mode.”
Beijing’s strategy, the scholar said, “is to crack down quickly and ruthlessly, hunt down leaders and hold them up for public punishment, and in this way try to intimidate anyone else who has the idea that somehow public protests are going to achieve political ends.”
Another expert noted that Uyghur, Tibetan, and sometimes even Mongolian groups appear together in public in the West, but whether that translates into solidarity inside China is unclear. “Outside of China, all these groups have in some ways a common interest, then they have been making some common cause,” the expert said.
“Whether there’s any coordination and whether the Uyghurs have come out [in Xinjiang] and marched in solidarity with Tibetan monks and Tibetan laypeople, I haven’t seen any reports that it’s happened … Certainly the Chinese are afraid of it, so that’s why they’ve clamped down.”
The Muslim Uyghur people account for most of the population of China’s northwestern Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
Kadeer received an eight-year sentence in 2000 for “endangering national security” but was paroled and exiled to the United States on March 17, 2005.
Uyghurs, who number more than 16 million, constitute a distinct, Turkic-speaking, Muslim minority in northwestern China and Central Asia. They declared a short-lived East Turkestan Republic in Xinjiang in the late 1930s and 40s but have remained under Beijing's control since 1949—two years before China annexed neighboring Tibet.