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VOA Q&A With Uighur Scholar Ilham Tohti

China began the trial this week of ethnic Uighur scholar and economist Ilham Tohti who is facing separatism charges. The following is an interview with VOA from October 30, 2013, just days after an attack on Tiananmen Square.

Q: What has happened over the past year [2013] in Xinjiang, has the situation there worsened again?

A: “What happened this year [in 2013] in Xinjiang is not a problem between Uighurs and Han, it's a problem between Uighurs and the government. Many Uighurs have also died and many details are still unknown, but to call anything that happens in Xinjiang a terrorist attack is unfair. Such attacks not only need to be officially confirmed, but to be proved by evidence and facts. We need evidence and corroboration by independent media, this is very important.”

Q: What is causing these conflicts between Uighurs and the government?

A: “Over the last few years social incidents, including incidents between Uighurs and Han, have been rising in provinces throughout China. Incidents in Xinjiang are in no way different from incidents that happen in other parts of the country. Of course, among Uighurs that have recrimination there are also people who raise ethnic problems, they are disappointed with policies on language, religion and culture or with the structure of power. The only difference with the rest of China is that in Xinjiang the is issues of ethnic and religious nature. Of course Xinjiang has a long term demand for autonomy and independence. But I cannot assure what incident is connected with autonomy or independent movements. Because the government and official media don't have any evidence when they make these assumptions. People who live in Xinjiang often have a different version of the facts. But until now we only have the government version for these clashes and violence. I cannot rule out that an increasing number of Uighurs in Xinjiang will resort to violent actions to express their frustration and discontent. But it's totally wrong to link all these Uighur actions to terrorism.”

Q: Since you came to the capital to work how has the situation for Uighurs in Beijing changed?

A: “It's never been easy for us Uighurs in China, suspicions about Uighurs frequently circulate especially at key moments and each time the suspicions turn out to be false. In 2008 it was said that Uighurs were coming to Beijing to carry out attacks and in the end nothing happened. Ever since I’ve come to Beijing, every time there is a big political meeting or big event there has always been some rumors circulating, comments that Uighurs were going to use toothpicks to stab people or infect people with AIDS. There have also been claims that Uighurs would blow up a metro station, but it never happened. I don't know it it's because there is someone who wants to use these unclear incidents or rumors to raise suspicions and frame things or to divert attention away from other issues.”