Page last updated at 20:35 GMT, Tuesday, 7 July 2009 21:35 UK

Assessing the role of Uighur exiles

By Firdevs Robinson
BBC News

Uighur democracy activist Rebiya Kadeer speaking in Washington, 6 July 2009

The Chinese authorities are blaming Uighur exiles for masterminding the violence in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province.

They single out the Washington-based Rebiya Kadeer as the mastermind behind the troubles.

This is not surprising. The 62-year-old exiled Uighur businesswoman has come to personify the Uighur cause in recent years.

Once an example of a successful entrepreneur and millionaire in Xinjiang, Mrs Kadeer was imprisoned for six years for separatist activities before she was sent into exile in the US.

Mrs Kadeer compares her treatment by the Chinese to that of the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Angry demonstrations

The World Uighur Congress that she heads is the biggest and the most influential of the Uighur exile groups.

How influential she is inside Xinjiang is more difficult to assess.

Xinjiang population is 45% Uighur, 40% Han Chinese
Uighurs are ethnically Turkic Muslims
China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan
Since then, large-scale immigration of Han Chinese
Sporadic violence since 1991
Attack on 4 Aug 2008 near Kashgar kills 16 policemen

Chinese government denunciations of her seem to add to her already strong charisma among her supporters outside China.

The World Uighur Congress has representatives in various European capitals, and it is mainly supporters of this movement who have been taking to the streets in cities around the world.

In Germany and the Netherlands, Uighur protestors caused damage to Chinese consulate buildings.

It was in Turkey, which is home to a significant number of Uighurs, that the angriest demonstrations took place.

Many Turks with strong nationalist sentiments see the Uighurs as their ethnic kin.

Uighur groups receive financial and political support from nationalists and pro-Islamist groups.

The recent events in Xinjiang seem to have increased public support in Turkey for the Uighur cause.

It was only 10 days ago that the Turkish President Abdullah Gul visited Urumqi with a big delegation of Turkish businessmen looking for closer trade links.

'Abuse of power'

However, the tide seems to have turned against China.

Even the normally enthusiastic Industrialists and Businessmen's Association is expressing concern over the incidents in Urumqi, asking Turkish businesses to reconsider their dealings with China.

Turkey, with its own ethnic divisions, does not want to be seen to be sympathetic to separatist movements.

Protesters outside the Chinese consulate in Istanbul, 7 July 2009
In Turkey, public support for Uighurs appears to have surged

But Uighur activists reject the label of separatism. They say they are fighting for their basic human rights.

Many Uighurs inside and outside China express a desire to have political and religious freedoms and a bigger share of economic prosperity.

But there are a few armed groups known to be active in China and beyond.

The East Turkistan Islamic Movement is the best known of these, and is on the US terrorist blacklist.

The Chinese government frequently points to the threat caused by the radical extremists, but human rights observers say China is exaggerating the threat as an excuse to cover up its abuse of power in Xinjiang.

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