The Uyghur diaspora has held its first democratic election, selecting delegates to attend the 7th World Uyghur Congress (WUC) General Assembly in November, where the exile group will choose a new president and other key committee members.
The expansion of voting comes amid an intensifying global focus on China’s treatment of the 12 million Uyghurs in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, where policies including mass internment, forced labor and coercive birth control have drawn accusations of genocide from rights groups and several Western nations.
On Sunday, Uyghurs around the world cast their ballots to elect 210 delegates from 25 countries out of 320 candidates to attend the General Assembly, which will be held from Nov. 12-14 in Prague, Czech Republic. WUC general elections are held every three years but were postponed from November 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Erkin Aliptekin, a prominent Uyghur political leader and the WUC’s first president based in Munich, told RFA’s Uyghur Service that the delegate elections had proceeded smoothly over the weekend.
“We held the first democratic election in the history of the people of East Turkestan,” he said, using the name preferred by Uyghurs for their homeland in northwest China, which Beijing calls the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR).
“Everybody exercised their right to vote or not to vote for the candidates according to their free will. Witnessing this made me so delighted … I congratulate the delegates selected through this election.”
Previous general elections for the WUC, which serves as the de facto government in exile for the Uyghur diaspora, have only been open to delegates to the General Assembly. This year marked the first time that the public elected delegates, who will include candidates for the general election.
“During the General Assembly, all 16 committees of the WUC and its representatives will report on the organization’s activities from 2017-2021, as well as the financial report of the past four years,” the WUC said in a statement on Monday, announcing plans for the November gathering.
“Following this, the current board members, including the President, will step down from their positions, and the newly elected delegates will run for board positions and presidency.”
After the general election takes place in November, the newly elected board and president of the organization will meet to strategize on priorities and activities for the next three years.
In addition to Aliptekin, who served from 2004 to 2008, the WUC has also been led by former businesswoman Rebiya Kadeer and its current president, Dolkun Isa.
This year, the WUC said its Executive Committee had made the election process more inclusive by providing opportunities for youth representatives and women. It will also allow for independent activists and those who are not working for Uyghur organizations to run for candidacy.
Behtiyar Omer, chairman of Norway Uyghur Committee, said the changes were noticeable in the weekend’s delegate election.
“The majority of the elected delegates are Uyghur youths and half of them are women,” he said, calling such a development “the most meaningful part of this event.”
The WUC said its general election will be closely monitored and audited by independent observers. International civil society organizations, members of parliament from different countries, and Uyghur supporters will be invited to the General Assembly, the group said.
Countries hosting significant Uyghur populations include fellow Turkic-speaking nations Kazakhstan, Turkey, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The Tibetan diaspora, which is also opposed to Chinese rule in its homeland Tibet, has embraced and expanded elections over the past two decades but, unlike the Uyghurs, have had a government in exile, based in India’s Dharamsala, for decades.
Reported by RFA’s Uyghur Service. Translated by Mamatjan Juma. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.