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Q&A with Uighur spiritual leader Rebiya Kadeer

The Monitor spoke with the exiled mother figure for China's Uighurs about the deadly riots, independence, and China's use of the label of 'terrorist.'

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It is hard to imagine what will happen if China goes ahead with executions. The protest itself shows that Uighurs, who knew the consequences of going on the street, went ahead anyway. Men and women were arrested. Uighur mothers are looking for husbands. Families are looking for sons and daughters. So many have simply disappeared. The Uighur people are trying to stand up.

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Q: Like the Dalai Lama in Tibet, you publicly advocate peace and non-violence. Yet Chinese authorities, as with the Dalai Lama, say you are actually directing and masterminding violence behind the scenes.

A: I am not the mastermind. The Chinese government's intent is to divert attention from their own problems, and demonize me by claiming I was the instigator. The Chinese government sees me as a threat. I've been speaking against injustice.

Q: Are you in touch with any Uighur groups that advocate violence?

A: I have no connection whatsoever with any violent groups. I am against all violence.

Q: Do you believe that the region China calls Xinjiang should be called East Turkestan?

A: Yes, it should be called East Turkestan. That is its historical name. Xinjing means 'new territories' and that is an insult to the people who have always lived there. Even the Chinese call it the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region. The Uighurs were there.

Q: Under the Chinese constitution, and even in the name of the province, Xinjiang is described as autonomous, as is Tibet. Is Urumqi governed by rules of autonomy?

A: China has never implemented the autonomy conferred upon us by the Chinese constitution. If it had, we would not have had a riot last Sunday.

The Chinese should allow self-rule allowing us to manage our own affairs. With genuine autonomy, there should be democracy.

Q: Do you want independence?

A: Every Uighur wants to see that.

Q: So when Beijing authorities call you a separatist, they are correct?

A: I'm not a separatist. But because of China's policies, the Uighurs are feeling driven to separate. For six decades, Uighurs have enjoyed no peace, freedom, or rights.

Q: Some critics say Uighur-Han relations were on the mend, prior to the Sunday riots.

A: Relations have always been unpleasant. Moreso after 9/11, after we became "terrorists." Things haven't improved. Chinese mobs attack and kill Uighurs in other regions of China with impunity. If you go to Chinese websites, you will see virtually no Han saying we should live in peace; the majority of postings call for the destruction of the Uighur.

Q: Last year in China brought a grassroots call for democracy and other human rights norms, by those associated with the Charter 08 document. What is your view?

A: I have respect for those people who defend Charter 08 and support their peaceful efforts. Charter 08 calls for a genuine federal state, and Uighurs would be granted a federal solution. Its call for democracy would aid the idea of more freedom.

Q: Tibetans and Uighurs are often linked in their calls for more freedom and protection of distinct identity. But are there important differences between the two?

A: Between the Uighurs and Tibetans, our suffering, our plight, is similar. But after 9/11 the Chinese began the use of propaganda against us in a way that has intensified our problems.