Despite physical and psychological torture, Rebiya continues her fight for freedom of East Turkistan
First time I met her, she was sitting amid a crowd of international guests in the lobby of a popular hotel in Tokyo. Although there was no special paraphernalia around her which gave her a special status, still she stood glowingly out of the crowd. A fully composed and peaceful face; a self-confident look in her shining eyes; two thin but long hair tails flowing around her shoulders and; a colourful ethnic cap on her head put her at some different pedestal from the crowd that comprised of tourists and international business travelers. Despite her age of 74 years and a short and skinny structure, her levels of energy and alertness make her look elegant, attractive and impressive.
This was Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uyghur freedom fighter whom the ‘almighty’ government of Communist China dreads and hates most only after the Dalai Lama. She comes from East Turkistan, an independent and resource rich Central Asian Country until it was forcibly occupied by Comrade Chairman Mao’s Peoples Liberation Army in 1949. This was Mao’s first and immediately next act after he had overthrown Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government of China through one of the bloodiest coups of modern world history. China renamed her country as ‘Xinjiang’, meaning ‘New Land’. Today it makes the largest province of People’s Republic of China with an area of 6,40,000 sq km and shared borders with Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and the Ladakh region of India’s Pakistan Occupied Jammu & Kashmir. Since then the freedom loving Uyghurs, all Muslim by faith, are fighting for the freedom of their country from Chinese colonialism. Rebiya symbolises the fighting spirit of the Uyghur people and is respected as the ‘Mother of Uyghuristan’.
A poor housewife who used to make and sell ordinary clothes to earn some extra money for the family in the old restrictive Communist days of Chairman Mao, she finally rose to the level of becoming the fifth richest person of China in 1980s when Deng Xiaoping opened China’s economy and declared ‘Being rich is a virtue’.
It was a no lesser feat than a miracle in the Han dominated Chinese Communist system that a woman like her could rise to the levels of a ‘Delegate’ in the highly envied 8th Chinese Peoples’ Political Consultative Conference (CPCC). Later, she became a member of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which is the highest organ of state power and the national legislature of the People’s Republic of China. In 1995 she was deputed as a representative of China in the 4th World Conference for Women of UN, held in Beijing. She also held senior positions in many business and industry associations of China. As a philanthropist she started the ‘1000 Mothers Movement’ which helped needy women to start their own business and to help orphans and poor children.
Rebiya is mother of 11 children, six from her first marriage and five from the second. Her present husband Sidik Haji Rozi is a famous intellectual and a freedom activist of East Turkistan who managed to escape from Xinjiang to USA in 1996 and is currently working at Radio Free Asia. Unlike most other members of the national parliament of China, Rebiya has been already a no-nonsense representative in NPC. She had become ‘notorious’ for pointing out government’s mistakes and insensitivities towards ethnic minorities which cost her re-nomination to the NPC in 1998.
But her problems with the Communist bosses of Beijing took a serious turn when RFA broadcasted excerpts from some secret official documents of the Beijing government which are kept away from general masses and media of China but are shared among senior political and military functionaries. Beijing alleged that she had passed on secret documents related to ‘anti-terrorism operations’ in Xinjiang to her exiled husband. In August 1999, she was arrested while she was on her way to meet some visiting research officials of the US Congress in Beijing.
In March 2000, she was sentenced to a long-term jail term, which led to strong support for her in many Parliaments, including those of the UK, USA and also from many international human rights groups. In 2004, the Human Rights House Foundation honoured her with Rafto Prize to put pressure on Beijing to release her. Finally threatening pressure from the US government led to her release and flight to USA from the Chinese jail on ‘medical grounds’ to pave way for the upcoming visit of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Since then she has been fighting for the freedom of East Turkistan. Rebiya was elected as the second President of World Uyghur Congress, the umbrella body of various organisations of East Turkistan. In 2009, when a film, ‘Dragon Fighter’, based on her autobiography with same title, was scheduled to be premiered in the Melbourne Film Festival, the government of China raised objections and threatened the organisers to pull it down. It even mounted pressure on the Australian government not to issue visa to Rebiya whom Beijing has branded as a ‘terrorist’. But neither the festival organisers nor the Australian government obliged. No surprise the film and her book became an instant hit. In protest, all Chinese films were pulled out of the festival. In China, many of her children are frequently in and out of China’s jails only to put pressure on her to stop her from running the freedom movement of East Turkistan.
Rebiya travels across the world to raise awareness about her colonised country. Although the Communist government of China has been trying to paint her and every other Uyghur as a ‘terrorist’, she has been nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize since 2007. I interviewed her first in Tokyo when she was elected as the international President of ‘Free Indo-Pacific Alliance’ (FIPA) an international joint front of countries which are colonized or are facing arrogance of present-day Communist government of China.