Unemployment is one of the biggest challenges facing the Uyghur people in East Turkestan.
Ethnic Uyghurs are facing a struggle for survival in the face of growing repression, exiled Uyghur leader Rebiya Kadeer said Monday as she launched a biennial meeting of the World Uyghur Congress hosted by Japan against China’s objections.
"Before, we were fighting for our rights, we were protesting against China's oppression," Kadeer told reporters after the opening of the four-day WUC talks in Tokyo.
"But now we face a fight for our existence,” said Kadeer, the president of the WUC, a Germany-based group representing Uyghurs worldwide and holding its biennial meeting in Asia for the first time, after previous congresses in Munich and Washington.
Around 120 Uyghur delegates from diaspora communities around the world are participating in the talks, at which they will they will elect new delegates and discuss Uyghur rights issues.
Kadeer said the WUC would continue its "peaceful struggle" amid growing repression in the Xinjiang region, where many Uyghurs complain they are being marginalized in their own homeland by Chinese development policies that favor Han Chinese.
"The situation is now worse than it was in 2009," when July 5 ethnic riots between Uyghurs and Han Chinese in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi prompted a brutal crackdown on the region, she said.
Praising Japan, which hosted the conference despite China’s objections, as the “most democratic country in Asia,” she urged foreign governments to support the rights of Uyghurs and China’s other ethnic minorities, including Tibetans and Mongolians.
"Countries around the world that embrace freedom and democracy should cooperate and sternly pressure China,” she said.
Five members of Japan's parliament spoke at the opening session.
As the assembly began, Beijing demanded an apology from Japan for hosting the exile group, which it has accused of harming China’s territorial integrity.
“China is strongly dissatisfied with Japan’s allowing the World Uyghur Congress to hold the meeting in Japan despite China’s repeated appeals,” Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said at a regular briefing, reiterating earlier objections.
“Xinjiang affairs are China’s internal affairs, in which outside interference is not tolerated,” he said.
After the opening ceremony, Kadeer and other Uyghur representatives paid a visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, a spot that has drawn outrage from China for honoring Japan’s World War II criminals.
Hong Lei said that Kadeer’s remarks in Japan “once again revealed her anti-China, splittist position” and that China “demands she abandon her plans to split the motherland.”
China has accused exile Uyghur activists including Kadeer of inciting terrorism in Xinjiang and has exerted diplomatic pressure to prevent other WUC meetings, the group has said.
In April, ahead of the WUC meeting, Japanese parliamentarians headed by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe set up a caucus supporting China’s minority Uyghurs, saying that Beijing should protect the human rights of the ethnic group.
On Thursday, the WUC will lead a demonstration march past the Chinese embassy in Tokyo, followed by three days of a leadership training seminar for Uyghur representatives.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.