TAIPEI: Militancy is on the rise in China among Uighurs driven to despair over Beijing's "terrorist colonisation", Wu'er Kaixi, a Uighur exiled after his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, has warned.
Wu'er - who spoke after two high-profile incidents outside Xinjiang, the vast, nominally autonomous western region that is home to the Muslim ethnic minority - pointed the finger of blame for the unrest squarely at Beijing.
"If you call Uighur people terrorists, did they have any other options? Who started terror and who pushed them to this place?" Wu'er, a former prominent student leader who fled China after the 1989 crackdown, told AFP in a recent interview.
"The Chinese Communist Party should be blamed... they have been conducting terrorist colonisation in my region, to my people. Where is the justice?"
The resource-rich region of Xinjiang has for years been hit by occasional unrest which Chinese authorities routinely attribute to "terrorists" seeking independence.
Attacks targeting civilians, however, were rare - until recently.
In March, a group of machete-wielding assailants killed 29 commuters and wounded 143 at Kunming railway station in an incident that sparked fear and anger throughout China and was dubbed the country's "9/11" by state media.
Victims described attackers dressed in black bursting into the station and slashing indiscriminately as people queued to buy tickets. Online photos showed blood spattered across the station floor and medical staff crouching over bodies.
Officials have blamed separatists from Xinjiang for the attack.
And in October last year, three relatives from Xinjiang drove a car into crowds of tourists in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the symbolic heart of the Chinese state.
They killed themselves and two bystanders when the vehicle burst into flames near the portrait of Mao Zedong that hangs on the Gate of Heavenly Peace.
'Severe official repression'
Wu'er, who lives in exile in Taiwan, warned that the attacks - both of which took place hundreds of kilometres from Xinjiang - may just be the beginning.
"Those eight people in Kunming station started attacking people, they did not expect to live, that's a suicide attack," he said.
"What brings Uighur people to the point of suicide? It has to be extreme depair."
Rights groups say tensions in Xinjiang are driven by cultural oppression, intrusive security measures, and immigration by majority Han Chinese - factors which have led to decades of discrimination and economic inequality.
The annual US Human Rights Report said China carries out "severe official repression" of Uighurs in Xinjiang, including over their freedom of speech and religion.
Beijing says its policies in Xinjiang have brought prosperity and higher living standards, and promotes it as an example of a place where numerous ethnic groups live in harmony.
The region, China's largest by area, also has national security implications for Beijing as it borders eight countries.
But, as in Tibet, resentment has been stirred by an influx in recent decades of millions of ethnic Han, who account for 92 percent of China's population.
Riots between Uighurs and ethnic majority Han left 200 people dead in the regional capital of Urumqi in 2009.
The Han Chinese supported past military crackdowns in ethnic regions, Wu'er said. As a result, Uighurs tend to see all Han Chinese as "guilty".
"Tibetans so far have had over 100 self-immolations, you can also see that as over 100 suicides... we Uighurs are not Buddhists, we probably see in a different way. When we decide the life we had is enough... some Uighurs decide to take a few Hans down together."
Great Wall of distrust
The resentment, however, is not entirely one-sided. Some Chinese view Uighurs with growing suspicion, especially after the Kunming and Tiananmen attacks.
"I won't let them into my taxi. They are all drug addicts and everyone outside Xinjiang distrusts them," a taxi driver in Kunming said last month after the mass stabbing. "They are trouble. Most people thought like this before, so you can imagine what people think now."
The mutual distrust dividing Uighurs from the rest of China leaves no room for common ground, Wu'er said. "We have to define in our own terms about what is terrorism and what is not, what is innocent and what is guilty."
And the international community, he said, must take its share of the blame for perpetuating the situation by prioritising good business relations with Beijing rather than human rights.
"They (Uighurs) have tried everything... They have tried to raise this issue in the international arena.
"But whenever it involves the Chinese Communist Party, the Western world... decides that business interests come first, it's called national interest.
"So listening to a few Uighurs talk about their human rights issues is inconvenient."
The international community, he added, could condemn terrorism as it has the luxury of options. In Xinjiang, however, "I just don't see that option now".
"The world should... listen to the people who are forced to have no option but to go for this path," he said. -AFP
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