TOKYO - Exiled representatives of the Uighur, an ethnic group that lives mainly in Western China’s province of Xinjiang, are meeting in Japan for their fourth annual conference. The World Uighur Congress, based in Germany, opposes what it calls the Chinese occupation of their land, and the group's gatherings routinely draw criticism from Beijing.
Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uighur Congress, and also known as "the Mother of the Uighur Nation," has been living in exile in the United States since her release from a Chinese prison in 2005.
She joined more than 100 representatives of the ethnic group from more than 20 countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, to elect new leadership and discuss strategies to engage China over the issue of self-determination.
Kadeer said the Uighurs are facing a threat to their existence because of the Chinese government’s policy of systematic assimilation. She also accuses Chinese authorities of committing extra-judicial killings, economic exploitation, and destroying Uighur values.
The 63-year-old leader said the international community seems more interested in trade with China than in human rights. But she noted that Japan’s support in hosting the general assembly illustrated a growing awareness of the Uighur issue.
In Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei criticized Japan for allowing the conference to take place.
Lei said the World Uighur Conference is an outright anti-China, separatist and terrorist organization. He said China is very dissatisfied that Japan has allowed the Uighur conference to convene.
Several members of the Japanese political opposition participated in the opening session and expressed support for the Uighur cause.
Alim Seytoff, vice president and director of the Uighur-American Association, said the political fate of the Uighurs has remained unsettled since 1949, when the Chinese Communists occupied the region known as East Turkestan.
Communist leaders renamed it Xinjiang - or "new territory" - and made it into an autonomous region of China.
Seytoff said that after six decades, autonomy is not a reality. While some Uighurs demand independence or self-determination, others favor negotiating with Beijing.
"We hope there will be some political reforms within China, a recognition of the human rights of the Chinese people, the Uighurs, the Tibetans, that there will be a more moderate government that we can talk [with] about our issues and find a political, peaceful settlement," said Seytoff.
The Uighurs meeting in Tokyo this week also are training members to raise awareness of Uighur issues in their communities and electing new representatives of the ethnic group in exile.