The Mother of the Uighur Movement
Leading Protest on Chinese Embassy, Rioting Region’s Exile Looms Large
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.
Kadeer said she condemned any violence committed by Uighurs, but blamed the authorities: “The Chinese police provoked the violence.”
The metaphorical mother of millions has 11 children of her own. Two of her sons are in prison in China. A former laundress, she built a successful business empire in trade, retail and restaurants and was hailed by the government as proof that opportunity exists in China. She joined the national government consultative body.
But she used her prominence to support Uighur causes and spoke against what she considered assaults on Uighur rights and culture. She was jailed in 1999 for allegedly “passing intelligence” — in the form of publicly available news articles — to foreigners. Freed in 2005, she was exiled to the United States.
Since then she has become president of the Uyghur American Association, which advocates for the estimated 1,000-plus Uighurs in the United States (including about 300 around Washington), and president of the World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella group for the estimated 2 million Uighurs outside western China. Chinese officials allege that the congress had a hand in sparking the violence. An estimated 8 million to 10 million Uighurs live in China, where they say they face religious and linguistic persecution.
A number of Uighurs spent years in the Guantanamo Bay prison on terrorism charges that the U.S. government has since retracted; last month Bermuda agreed to accept four of the 17 still in the prison.
For the demonstration Tuesday, Kadeer wore a tan business suit and a traditional four-cornered Uighur cap of maroon cloth embroidered with gold. She was clutching a red cellphone, her main organizing tool and protest weapon. Her hair was gathered in two long black braids, flecked with gray. Later she got hungry, and sitting on the ground near the Chinese Embassy, she had a slice of pizza with onions and green peppers.
The tough movement matriarch was still muttering about the inarticulate emotion of some of her comrades. “Everyone got to the microphone and started crying and didn’t translate well,” she said.
She speaks carefully around the question of full independence for Uighurs. She does not accept the label of “separatist.”
“The Chinese government suppresses us so much,” she said. “What my people want is what I want, and they want freedom.”
Singling out Kadeer, Chinese officials could blame the riots on outside forces rather than discontent at home. But at the same time, experts on the Uighur movement say officials may have strengthened Kadeer’s status as a rallying heroine for Uighurs.
“She makes a great figurehead, because she’s a woman, because she’s Muslim, because she’s outspoken, and she’s a mother,” said Linda Benson, a professor at Oakland University in Michigan, who specializes in western China. “There’s been a need for a long time for that movement to have a major figure that they can call upon to represent them.”
“She is an incredibly warm, charismatic, accessible person,” says Sophie Anderson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. “Even though I don’t speak a word of Uighur, she’s such an animated person, you feel you know what she’s saying, she’s so compelling.”
An important financial supporter for three of the advocacy groups Kadeer leads is the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based, taxpayer-funded bipartisan outfit chaired by former congressman Richard A. Gephardt. The endowment gave about $550,000 to those groups last year. Kadeer receives a small salary through one of the groups, said Louisa Greve, the endowment’s director for East Asia.
“Her political sense as a political fighter for democracy is unparalleled,” Greve said.
The work is more than full time, says Kadeer’s second husband, Sidik Rouzi, who works part time for Radio Free Asia. “Even on weekends, she never gets off the phone, sometimes two phones to her ears, talking to the people around the world,” he said.
Rouzi, a Uighur activist, also served time in prison. Kadeer met him after he got out, in the mid-1970s. She was divorced. “She said, ‘I’m going to marry the guy who loves his nation,’ ” he said. “In our culture, the man speaks first to the woman. But this time it was different, and she’s the one who came and said, I will marry you.”
More than 100 Uighurs gathered with Kadeer before marching to the embassy. They waved blue and white flags of the Uighurs, and they wiped their feet on a Chinese flag defaced with a swastika. Younger demonstrators painted their faces blue and white, wore blue and white headbands and dyed their hair blue. Young men wore the blue and white uniform of their local amateur soccer team, Uighurs United.
“She is the symbol of freedom and the mother of our country,” said Amir Kashgari, 19, who immigrated with his family as a child.
The only moment when Kadeer’s eyes appeared to mist over was when the youngest of her 11 children, Kekenus Sidik, 19, a sophomore at Georgetown University, took the bullhorn and exhorted the crowd in a scream of English: “We have been cheated, murdered, raped, violated, deprived, betrayed, discarded, sold and tortured for too long!”
Sidik is the child Kadeer almost lost. What made her mother’s eyes well was recalling how Chinese officials had wanted her to abort her last baby, because she was way over the birth quota.
Kadeer, meanwhile, is the mother Sidik can’t completely have.
“I have to learn to share her with everyone else, everyone in my country, everyone here,” the daughter said. “She’s a special mother. She’s everyone’s mother.”