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Conference aims to bring Xinjiang woes to forefront

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News | 3/21/2010 12:00:00 AM | Gül TÜYSÜZ

A conference held in Istanbul over the weekend focused on China’s traditionally Turkic Muslim region of Xinjiang and aimed to highlight the remote region’s problems in the wake of July 2009 communal clashes.

The Free Eastern Turkistan Symposium was organized to emphasize the world’s failure to acknowledge the human rights violations, policies of economic isolation and attacks against freedom of religion against Xinjiang’s Uighur Muslims for the past 60 years, Osman Atalay, a board member for the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Aid, or İHH, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review.

Along with the Istanbul Peace Platform, the İHH was one of the event’s organizers.

Official government sources said nearly 200 people were killed and 1,600 wounded in July 2009 riots in Xinjiang's capital, Urumqi, in the worst ethnic unrest in China in decades. Beijing claimed the riots were orchestrated by overseas activists for the rights of Uighurs, historically Xinjiang's largest ethnic group.

However, Uighur activists say the Urumqi riots, which were followed by retaliatory attacks by members of China's majority Han ethnic group, were the result of decades of pent up frustration against Chinese rule.

Despite Turkey’s official policy of supporting China's territorial integrity, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called the violence in Xinjiang “a kind of genocide.”

“The whole world saw on July 5, 2009, that China does not respect human rights and freedoms. China has applied all kinds of pressure and oppression against the people of Eastern Turkistan,” Atalay said.

The Chinese government has even attempted to alter the demographic composition of the region, he said, emphasizing the restrictions on child birth in the region. "They cannot even stand the name Eastern Turkistan, they call it Xinjiang.”

[HH] PM’s remarks appreciated by community

Although some groups support demands for an independent Uighur homeland for Xinjiang's 8 million Uighurs, who comprise roughly half the region’s population, Turkey's official policy has been to support China's territorial integrity and oppose any separatist movements.

Hidayet Oğuzhan, director-general of the Eastern Turkistan Educational and Solidarity Association, or Maarif Derneği, said “the weak statements” by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on the riots had been particularly distressing for them.

“However, the prime minister's remarks calling the events a genocide elated the Eastern Turkistan community,” he said.

The deputy mayor of Zeytinburnu Municipality, İlyaz Saka, who is of Uighur origin, also attended the conference, which gathered more than 20 academics.

Saka's family immigrated to Turkey “because the demands made on Uighur Muslims by Chinese forces roughly 60 years ago were not acceptable to them.”

He said: "They wanted our horses, our guns and our children. With the horses they wanted to diminish our maneuvering capabilities, with the guns they wanted to take away our ability to defend ourselves and by trying to assimilate our children they wanted to take away our future."

Saka also said Zeytinburnu has the highest concentration of Uighur Muslims in Turkey.

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