As world watches Tibet, China's Muslim Uighurs face growing repression

KHOTAN, China — Almost unnoticed amid the wide-scale protests by Tibetans over the past month is the social unrest among the 8 million or so Muslim Uighurs in China's resource-rich far western territory.

Recently, hundreds of Muslim women in black veils gathered outside the market in this oasis city in an impromptu protest. Some carried signs demanding an independent state.

"I saw the demonstration myself. There were 500 to 700 women in black, waving placards for East Turkestan," said Wu Jiangliang, a hydroelectric company employee.

China handled the unrest forcefully, ensuring the stability of a region rich in oil, coal and minerals. Police moved quickly to quell the March 23 protest, arresting numerous women and shooing others away. It drew only minor notice.

China also has broken up what it said were two terrorist rings that intended to disrupt the Beijing Summer Olympic Games and thwarted what it said was a terrorist attempt last month on a commercial airliner.

But as state officials employed a firm hand against restive Uighurs, pronounced WEE-gers, they also publicly demonized those behind the social unrest. Critics now say that while the state has stabilized ethnic areas, the harsh language may exacerbate tensions.

"The problem is that China's policies are alienating," said Nicholas Bequelin, a Hong Kong-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group. "They are efficient in that political repression works. But they increase ethnic tensions."

Conversations in the marketplaces and along the sandy streets of this city reveal that Han Chinese and Uighurs live side by side but share little except mistrust and fear.

"I don't have Chinese friends," said a Uighur shopkeeper who identified herself only as Ayguzal. "Chinese people never come in here."

At midnight in a karaoke bar in a hotel frequented by Han Chinese businessmen, a young Han asked a visitor a question over the thumping music.

"Are you scared?" he wanted to know.

Asked if he meant afraid of the Muslims, he replied: "They hate us."

Khotan, known in Mandarin as Hetian, sits on the edge of the sprawling Taklimakan Desert. The vast majority of the million or so residents are Uighurs.

A series of bombings and assassinations shook the surrounding Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region in the 1990s, but a repressive campaign that included numerous executions halted that terrorism.

Han merchants have migrated to Khotan in increasing numbers this decade to trade in jade, which is excavated from a local riverbed.

Some adhere to the government line that the Han majority enjoys harmonious relations with all 56 ethnic minority groups dwelling in China, and particularly with the Uighurs.

"We are all one people," said Huang Ziyong, a jade merchant who arrived in 1993 from Sichuan province. Huang hasn't bothered to study Uighur, which shares linguistic roots with Turkish. "I can't speak their language."

When speaking confidentially, Uighurs are quick to pour out grievances.

Some complain of family-planning policies that have left Uighur mothers dead from second-trimester abortions. Others said that few senior party or regional officials are ethnic Uighurs, despite pledges decades ago that the region would enjoy autonomy.

Since 2006, controls have stiffened. Muslim shopkeepers aren't allowed to pray in their stores, and state employees are discouraged from practicing religion at all.

"The government has taken away everyone's passports and kept them in the local police station," said a farmer who gave his name only as Muttursun.

Tensions in Khotan rose early this year when state security arrested a prominent Uighur jade merchant, Mutallip Hajim, who was known to help young Muslim students with his philanthropy. On March 3, police gave Hajim's body to his family, saying he'd died of a heart attack. He was 38 years old.

"They suspected he was a leader supporting demonstrations," said Rebiya Kadeer, an exile leader who is president of the World Uighur Congress.

Kadeer, speaking by telephone from the United States, said Hajim had been tortured and that a number of Uighur men were subsequently arrested, enraging their wives and leading to the women's March 23 protest. The women also were angry that the government discourages them from wearing black headscarves.

"The government has been really heavy-handed," Kadeer said. "The Uighurs are ready to take to the streets and the government knows that. This is only the tip of the iceberg."

Beijing frequently asserts that separatists and terrorists lurk among the Uighur population, stoking fear in ordinary Uighurs that they may face accusations at any time.

"They've got the political sword of Damocles over their heads. If you smear someone as a separatist, they are in big trouble," Bequelin said.

Xinjiang leaders have accused Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami, a movement active in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia, of spreading tens of thousands of pamphlets in major cities, including Khotan, earlier this year. The group advocates the creation of a pan-global Islamic state, or caliphate.

In the most recent alleged terrorist case, the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing said April 10 that agents had smashed a ring of 35 radicals in Xinjiang who planned to disrupt the Olympics with kidnappings and mass poisonings. It provided no details about where the arrests took place or the identities of those arrested.

Foreign terrorism experts suggest that China may be conflating criminal activity with potential terrorism, a sign that it's jittery about stability before the Olympics.

After a Jan. 27 raid in the regional capital of Urumqi, authorities said Muslim militants threw grenades at police, injuring seven officers. Two militants allegedly were killed, and 15 were captured.

But when an Agence France-Presse journalist went to the middle-class housing development in Urumqi, residents dismissed reports of a grenade-tossing clash.

"That's nonsense," one resident told the news agency. "Everybody would have heard something like that," said another resident.

China claims that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement has links to global terrorist cells, a charge that some experts dismiss.

"There's just no clear connection between al Qaida and East Turkestan," said Dru C. Gladney, a professor at Pomona College in California. "(Osama) bin Laden has never mentioned them."

Many Chinese now quickly associate Uighurs with trouble.

"The general perception of Uighurs has shifted in China at large. Now mention 'Uighurs,' and it's, 'Oh, dangerous terrorists!'" Bequelin said. "It may be the longest-lasting effect of this campaign."


The history of the Uighurs can be traced back 2,600 years. According to a history compiled by the London Uighur Ensemble, a group formed to popularize the traditional and popular music of the Uighurs, the nomadic tribes of that era rose "to challenge the Chinese Empire" and to become "the diplomatic arm of the Mongol invasion."

China's ethnic Uighurs are moderate Muslims who are related to the Turks. Like the Kurds of Asia Minor and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, the Uighurs are a dissatisfied transnational ethnic minority spread across several countries, without an independent homeland or a strong leader. They are located mainly China, but also Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The London Ensemble notes that the ethnic minority "staged several uprisings" against the Nationalist Chinese government in the period before the Communists took control of the country. In 1933 and 1944, the Uighurs established an independent Islamic Eastern Turkestan republic, but that attempt at a nation state ended after military intervention by the Soviet Union. With the establishment of the Maoist government in China in 1949, the tribal homeland came under Chinese communist rule.


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