Uighurs strike back
Chinese analysts say the most potent threat to China is that of Islamic fundamentalism that defies all borders and is already emanating in the heart of China spearheaded by the ETIM. What they do not mention is that this threat itself or at least directio
The recent knife attack at Kunming Train Station in China that left 29 people dead and seriously injured 143 indicates the mounting unrest within China, particularly in the Xinjiang region. Police shot dead four of the assailants but were searching for at least five more of the black-clad attackers including two women.
The attack was the deadliest violence attributed to Uighur-Han conflicts since riots in the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi in 2009, in which Uighurs stormed the streets of the city, targeting Han people in seemingly random violence that included the killing of women and children. A few days later, Han vigilante mobs armed with sticks and bats attacked Uighurs in the same city. Nearly 200 people had died. Xinjiang is home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule by some members of the Muslim Uighur population and the government has responded there with heavyhanded security.
Uighurs, predominant group of some 20 million population of 13 ethnic groups of Xinjiang, consider Chinese presence imperialist and seek indepen- dence. Uighurs have strong links with their counterparts in Central Asia. Xinjiang had declared independence in 1933 creating the Islamic Republic of East Turkestan and kept coming under China and declaring independence, till in 1949 China conquered the region. Uighurs abhor Chinese presence in Xinjiang especially because of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategy of overwhelming them demographically by settling Han Chinese in this region in large numbers aimed at throttling the Uighur culture, customs and traditions of the locals and recourse to strong-arm measures wherever they see resistance. Yet, many resistance groups continue to put up a fight for Xinjiang’s independence, most prominent one being the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM). Interestingly, a 600-strong special unit of ETIM is hiding in Pakistan.
The resentment in Uighurs apart from the much wealthier Han migratory invaders includes disparities in hiring wages, reduced employment avenues, reduced access to natural resources like water, agricultural land and irrigation. Deliberate effort by the Chinese Government to ignore economic disparities
has naturally led to ethnic tensions between the Han Chinese and the Uighurs. But the CCP that bulldozes her own citizen’s homes in the heart of the Chinese mainland without recourse to alternatives and even ignores their suicides, doesn’t care. Recently, a dozen Chinese citizens consumed pesticide in Beijing to protest against the demolition of their homes, having travelled 1,070 km from Wuhan in Hubei province after local authorities showed indifference to an earlier threat of mass suicide. Ironically, they had been protesting since 2010 when local authorities razed their homes and gave little or no compensation in return. The incident highlighted the growing resentment across China over demolition of homes and forcible seizure of property belonging to ordinary people. Such barbaric actions by the CCP are commonplace in China and so why would they spare Uighurs whom they want to subjugate totally. Exiled Uighur leader Rebiyah Kadeer has been raising voices against Chinese attempts to refashion cultural identity and fierce repression of religious expression by the Uighurs.
Uighurs have been rebelling against Chinese occupation since the 1990s and every time the Chinese Government has reacted with a heavy hand. Thousands have been arrested over the years, many vanishing altogether. During 2009, 156 people were killed and some 800 injured in bloody clashes between Han Chinese and Uighurs in Xinjiang’s capital Urumqi as a reaction to killing of some Uighurs in Guangdong province of China. The Uighur rebellion has been gathering pace since the 1990s. China alleges that the ETIM has links with Al Qaeda but then China herself has had links with Taliban since over a decade and China has armed the United Wa State Army (USWA) of Myanmar as her deadliest proxy.
The heart of the Xinjiang uprising is not localised as is evident from the attack in Kunming. Restiveness is all over the country, and the leaders know it. Their intense consternation is not without reasons. Chinese have implemented a series of tough policies including the forced transfer of teenage Uighur women to China’s Eastern cities like Tianjin, Jiangsu, Qingdao, Shandong, Zhejiang and others in the guise of providing employment opportunities. In 2006 alone there had been 2,40,000 cases of Uighur girls being forced to shift from the Kashgar region. The plight of these girls is reportedly miserable and they are also not allowed to return freely to their hometowns. This policy, aggressively pursued to bridge the economic gap by the authorities has raised pent-up anxieties among the Uighurs as these girls are often used as slave labour and sex workers in Chinese cities. Cultural assimilation is another motive apart from the sinister design to obliterate the size of the Uighur population.
Since Xinjiang shares borders with Tibet and Mongolia aside from India, Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, most dangerous for China would be coordinated response from Xinjiang, Tibet and Mongolia against Chinese aggression and repression albeit that possibility appears remote presently. It may look far-fetched today but certainly cannot be completely ruled out since dissent in these individual regions has come up primarily due to Chinese policies that are getting more and more belligerent by the day.
Uighur activist Rebiya Kadeer wrote in April 2008, “The world has watched in horror recently as Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons engaged in peaceful demonstrations have been met with brutality by the Chinese People’s Armed Police. Tibet’s descent into chaos and violence is heartbreaking. As has been made clear by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who has dedicated his life to peacefully promoting the Tibetan people’s legitimate aspirations for cultural autonomy and survival, lasting peace and meaningful change must be achieved through non-violent means. In watching recent coverage of the demonstrations in Tibet and their bloody aftermath…. I had no choice but to speak out against the Chinese Government’s policy of cultural destruction and its human rights abuses.”
Since the 2009 bloody clashes in Xinjiang were preceded few months earlier by the widespread rioting in Tibet, the sum total appears less because of religion but more an ethnic war by native inhabitants against the Han Chinese. The New York Times of July 7, 2009, had reported that a group of several hundred Uighur women told visiting journalists that Chinese don’t respect lifestyle of Uighurs, are limiting religious practice, phasing out Uighur language instruction in schools and reinforcing better economic opportunities for the Han, from businesspeople to migrant workers. Through CCP officials, it is the Han Chinese who are holding total power in Xinjiang and Tibet. Tibetans may be six million but Uighurs are over 10 million and China may yet have to pay the price of repression in future.
Chinese Police in Xinjiang region shot dead eight Uighurs on December 30, 2013, when a knife and explosives wielding group attacked a police station though Dilxat Rexit, a Sweden-based spokesman for the World Uighur Congress, said he believed Uighurs had come to the police station to protest against poor treatment, and denied that they were armed. This incident came just two weeks after 16 Uighurs were killed in a clash between Chinese police and ethnic Uighurs near the city of Kashgar, in the same vicinity. It may be recalled that in October last year a Uighur family drove a car into Tiananmen Square and set themselves on fire and in mid-November 2013, 11 Uighurs were killed in Bachu county, also near Kashgar. And so the bloodbath continues.
Then are the possibilities of covert foreign assistance to individual movements akin to the Soviet Union backing the Uighur movement during the 1940s. Russia and China have fought wars in the past and the dynamics of geopolitics can hardly rule out conflict in future with some analysts already predicting Russia and China headed in that direction, Shanghai Cooperation Organization notwithstanding.
Chinese analysts say the most potent threat to China is that of Islamic fundamentalism that defies all borders and is already emanating in the heart of China spearheaded by the ETIM. What they do not mention is that this threat itself or at least directional guidance and support most likely comes from within Pakistan’s radical core. It is for such reasons that China wants to establish PLA bases inside Pakistan and has established in Gilgit-Baltistan. Then of course are the aggressive and hegemonic designs of China in scant regard to neighbours, less her two nuclear protégés – Pakistan and North Korea. So, the world may just as well think about cutting to size Chinese expansionist designs by helping her implode, proxy forces being the order of the day. For starters, if the knife attackers in Kunming had assault rifles instead, body count in the massacre would have been manifold.
Ürümqi is a major industrial centre within Xinjiang
LT GENERAL (RETD) P.C. KATOCH
Uighurs at a market, Khotan