The Mother of the Uighur Movement

Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer led protesters in a march from downtown Washington to the Chinese Embassy, chanting "Shame on China." Recent violence between Muslim Uighurs and ethnic Han Chinese has killed more than 150 people in China. Video by Anna Uhls/The Washington Post
By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 2009

The translators kept bursting into tears.

That was a problem for Rebiya Kadeer, the tiny and fiery matriarch of the Uighur diaspora, who lives in Fairfax County and who was leading a protest march on the Chinese Embassy in Washington on Tuesday.

She was speaking Uighur, the Turkic language of her people. Unlike her younger translators who spelled one another at the bullhorn, Kadeer, 63, scarcely betrayed weakness in the fierce planes and furrows of her face. Although the Chinese Embassy said she "instigated" the bloody rioting in her homeland in far western China, she looked almost serene.

Her problem: How do you get the message to the wider world, via the assembled television cameras, if the message comes out soused and doused in sobs and wailing?

Or maybe that is the message.

The violence this week leaves many Uighurs in a state of pure, helpless emotion. Some say loved ones have been killed. Others can't reach friends and fear the worst.

The riots and the crackdown in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region, are proving to be a perverse opportunity. For much of their history, the Uighurs -- pronounced "wee-gers" -- have been a relatively obscure, Muslim ethnic minority. This week they have been elevated closer to the Tibetans in terms of publicity for civil rights struggles in China.

This is the Uighurs' moment. And Kadeer, they say, is their "mother."

"Every day Uighurs are dying!" Kadeer said through a now-composed translator. "I consider myself the voice of millions of Uighur people. I consider myself as their tears."

Chinese officials say Kadeer's role in the recent bloodshed is more than symbolic. The Associated Press cites officials saying they have a recording of Kadeer speaking by phone to a relative in Urumqi, discussing in advance demonstrations that occurred last weekend.

Kadeer rejects the charge. She says she indeed called her brother to alert him to announcements being circulated by others on the Internet. "I urged my brother to stay at home that day, and to ask my other family members to stay at home as well, fearing that they may be subject to violence at the hands of the authorities if they ventured outside," she said. "In no way did I call on anyone, at any time, to demonstrate."

The initial Uighur demonstration in Urumqi came in response to attacks on Uighurs at a factory late last month. The demonstration turned violent, with Uighurs reportedly attacking majority Han Chinese and their businesses. This prompted succeeding episodes of Uighurs and majority Han Chinese fighting each other. Troops were called out. Chinese authorities say 156 people have been killed, but Uighurs say hundreds more have died.

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