A new Uighur exile leader says he hopes his message of non-violent resistance to Chinese rule in his homeland, in the far northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, will unite his fellow Uighurs, both inside and outside the country. His message contrasts with another international image that has gained prominence in recent years of China's Muslim Uighurs as prone to violence.
In April, Uighur delegates from 13 different countries attended a meeting in Germany. As a result, two groups merged to form the World Uighur Congress to champion non-violence as a way to deal with the Chinese government.
Louisa Coan Greve, senior Asia program officer at the National Endowment for Democracy, praised the move. "The ability of the groups to come together in Munich for the creation of the World Uighur Congress, I think, should be taken seriously," she said. "Obviously, it's [in its] early days yet, but I think it's a great accomplishment."
Uighurs call their homeland Eastern Turkestan, which is better known as the Chinese region of Xinjiang. About eight million live inside China, with about one million ethnic Uighurs living mostly in Central Asia, Saudi Arabia, Europe and the United States.
Uighurs differ in the strength of their calls for Eastern Turkestan's independence, but at a minimum, they all accuse the Chinese government of gross human rights abuses and harsh discrimination.
To draw attention to their plight, Ms. Greve says the Uighurs, after decades of relative obscurity, are trying to learn from another Chinese minority group that has been successful in attracting international support for its peaceful campaign, the Tibetans.
"In some ways, it's true that the Uighurs are looking very much to the Tibetan peoples' international lobbying on behalf of the welfare and autonomy for the Tibetan people as a model," she explained. "So, for sure, they need to have allies around the world before they can expect the Chinese government to deal directly with them."
The Tibetans have the Dalai Lama, the central religious figure who unifies Tibetans inside and outside of China. Up until recently, this was one advantage the Uighurs lacked.
"Erkin Alptekin is widely touted as the next possible or only hope for a Uighur Dalai Lama. And he's certainly probably the best candidate out there for such a position," said University of Hawaii professor Dru Gladney.
Erkin, 66, is the son of Isa Yusuf Alptekin, who was the elected leader of a short-lived Uighur government in the 1940's, under the Chinese Nationalists.
"And [Isa Yusuf] Alptekin became a famous scholar of Uighur history, an activist," he added. "There's a park named after him in downtown Istanbul, next to Sultan Ahmet, the great mosque. There are over 160 streets and monuments [around the world] named after Alptekin. So, in the Turkic-speaking world, it's a very, very important name, and widely known."
Erkin Alptekin has an extensive international resume in his own right. He was 10-years-old when his family fled from China to Turkey in 1949, after the Chinese Communists won the civil war. He moved to Germany in 1970 to work for Radio Liberty. He later was a founder and secretary-general of the Hague-based Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization, which has been referred to as a shadow United Nations for stateless populations.
In a recent interview during a visit to Washington, Mr. Alptekin rejected comparisons to the Dalai Lama, stressing that he is not a religious figure.
"I am a lobbyist," he explained. "I happen to lobby for the cause for the last 35 years. My father happened to lobby the cause for the last 70 years. So, the Alptekin name is quite known among the [Uighur] countrymen. And they thought that the name, Alptekin, could be a unifying name."
In the 1990's, following an uprising against Chinese rule and several bombings, the Uighurs gained what Mr. Alptekin says is an unfair international reputation for violence. The Chinese government further increased this one-sided reputation following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, by accusing the Muslim Uighurs of terrorism.
Meanwhile, American forces captured Uighurs in Afghanistan, and incarcerated more than 20 of them at Guantanamo Bay. Also, the U.S. government has placed one Uighur group, the Eastern Turkestan Independence Movement, on its list of terrorist organizations.
Mr. Alptekin says reports of Uighur links to terrorism are exaggerated. He says many Uighurs who went to Afghanistan in 1980 to fight against the then Soviet Union stayed there.
He acknowleges some fought for the Taleban, but he says some also fought for the Northern Alliance. He insists there are no Uighur ties to al-Qaida. "They had nothing to do against the United States. They have no intention against any western countries," he said.
Mr. Alptekin also stresses that only a small radical fringe of frustrated and hopeless Uighurs resort to violence to get the world to notice them. "As a result of the international community's disinterest, most of these people are [resorting] to violence and leaving the path of non-violent conflict to draw attention," he added. "The international community only reacts when conflict is there."
Mr. Alptekin says the Chinese government can either continue a hostile confrontation with the Uighurs in Xinjiang or try to figure out a peaceful way to resolve the problems there.
What he thinks his fellow Uighurs would want, he adds, is more self-rule, improved living standards, and less economic and social discrimination.