Thursday, July 09, 2009

Canada's Uyghurs 'awakened' by Chinese crackdown

Canada's Uyghurs 'awakened' by Chinese crackdown

‘People are very, very angry'

Jennifer MacMillan

From Thursday's Globe and Mail Last updated on Thursday, Jul. 09, 2009 09:45AM EDT

Uyghur-Canadians are banding together to protest the recent crackdown by Chinese authorities on demonstrations in their homeland, and some say last weekend's riots have been an “awakening” for the tiny community.

“Usually when we had protests before, it was hard to get 20 or 30 people to show up,” said Mehmet Tohti, an Uyghur-Canadian living in Mississauga, Ont. “But today, everyone stopped working and came together to express their anger.”

Nearly all of the Toronto 120 Uyghurs demonstrated outside the Chinese consulate in Toronto Wednesday while another 30 of Alberta's Uyghurs gathered at the Chinese consulate in Calgary. The Toronto group was joined by a few dozen supporters, mostly from the region's Turkish community. The Uyghurs are a Muslim people of Turkic descent who have a long history in a part of northwestern China bordered by Mongolia and Kazakhstan in the north and India in the south.

Despite the fact the region has been under Beijing's rule for the past 60 years, Uyghurs are ethnically closer to the Turks and feel their culture is under siege as hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese have been encouraged to move into the region by the government, ratcheting up tensions between the two groups.

Violent clashes are nothing new to the region, but Mr. Tohti says the latest round of riots are different.

“It's crossing the line,” he said. “The Han Chinese are openly killing the Uyghurs.”

Demonstration organizers tried to keep the peace among protesters Wednesday, but tensions flared at one point as one man lit a Chinese flag on fire and another woman threw water bottles at a man who laughed at the protesters while exiting the consulate.

“People are very, very angry,” said Gulia, 55, who didn't want to use her last name for fear of reprisal attacks against her siblings who live in Urumqi. “They're very scared.”

Tursun Nurdun, 48, lives in Etobicoke and says he hasn't been able to reach his mother, two sisters and a brother in Urumqi since last Sunday's riots. He fears they may have been hurt or killed in the violence.

“Every day, I call the phone, it [doesn't] work,” he said. “I send the e-mail, and there's no e-mail back.”

Mr. Nurdun drives a truck for a living to support his wife and two teenaged children, and tries to help his family back in Urumqi when he can. He hasn't seen them in 12 years.

“I have a job and I send them money,” Mr. Nurdun said. “All of them went to university and then there's no job. The companies say to them, ‘I don't need Uyghurs, I hire Han Chinese.'”

Amnesty International, along with Uyghur-Canadian groups, is calling on China to launch an independent and impartial investigation into the recent violence.

“It's also our concern that the serious violations of human rights in the longer term be addressed as well,” said Amnesty's China campaigner, Lindsay Mossman. “Accusations of terrorism with little merit have been used to detain Uyghurs in the past.”

Huseyin Celil, an Uyghur-Canadian, was sentenced to life in prison in China on terrorism charges in 2006 and remains in jail overseas despite years of lobbying by the federal government to secure his freedom.

Mr. Nurdun wants Canada to keep pressuring China on its treatment of Uyghurs, and the group plans to hold another protest in Ottawa tomorrow Friday.

“I hope Stephen Harper will push Hu Jintao to change the system,” Mr. Nurdun said.

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