THE CHALLENGE OF THE UIGHURS IN CENTRAL ASIA.

Publication: Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 208

The political and cultural activities of the Uighurs pose one of the most serious contemporary challenges to the governments of Central Asia and China. Creators of a large empire in the eighth century in what is now Mongolia, the Uighurs were subsequently conquered by the competing Kyrgyz tribe. Today, the Uighurs constitute 49 percent of the population of China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, which borders Central Asia, Mongolia, and Russia. Uighurs also populate stretches of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

China has intensified its persecution of its extensive Muslim minorities in its northwestern province in recent weeks. In late October, Beijing fired 260 officials in Xinjiang province and halted the construction or renovation of 133 mosques. Companies attracted by recent oil discoveries are hiring Han Chinese rather than Uighurs. Such developments are consistent with Beijing’s gradual squashing of Muslim activities which was marked by the March 1997 execution in Urumqi of three alleged Uighur separatists. The executions provoked an anti-Chinese riot in the western city of Kuldja, which was brutally put down by Chinese troops with 10 people reportedly killed.

With the independence and accompanying Islamic renaissance (albeit to different degrees) of the Central Asian republics, more assertive Uighurs in these Republics have become increasingly aware culturally and ethnically. The Afghan war has had a radicalizing effect on young Uighurs in Tajikistan, and arms from the conflict have been smuggled into Xinjiang. The United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan has established itself in Almaty as a government-in-exile. Along with two other Kazakhstan-based Uighur groups, it issued a declaration in March stating that they were taking up arms to fight Chinese oppression.

The response of Central Asian governments has been cautious. Kyrgyzstan is acting according to its seeming practice of support for human rights. Typical of this was the May 1997 opening of a new research institute for the study of the Uighurs. The institute cannot be construed strictly as apolitical, because while it studies the Uighur language it also concerns itself with the politics of East Turkestan, which the Uighurs view as their rightful homeland. The Center’s director, Nurmukhamed Kenji, is also proposing the formation of an umbrella organization called the Uighur National Organizations Union to serve Uighurs throughout Central Asia. Moreover, the Republic has increased the status of Muslim clergymen by requiring them to pass examinations in the Koran and the rules and rituals of the shariat.

The Kazakhstani government is also acutely aware of its one-million diaspora in neighboring Xinjiang. To date, Kazakhstani authorities have resisted replying to the activities of the exiled liberation group with harsh and overt measures. Nevertheless, in April 1997, when Chinese president Jiang Zemin met with the Central Asian presidents, Nazarbaev, as well as Akaev, stated that anti-Chinese activities by the separatists would not be tolerated on their territory. The Kazakhstani government went further with its May 1997 declaration by the Kazak Prosecutor General’s Office that it will "resolutely cut short attempts to revive the so-called United National Front of Eastern Turkestan."

Central Asian governments, and indeed China, will be forced to monitor Uighur activities closely. Harsh responses are likely to be counterproductive Most indigenous analysts concur that the Uighurs cannot topple governments; they are also unlikely to achieve their secessionist aims. But they remain a potent source of destabilization in a border region that local economists expect will become one of the most active market areas in the world by early next century.

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The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and Analysts Igor Rotar, Douglas Clarke, Ben Slay, Peter Rutland, Sally Cummings, and Roger Kangas.

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The Monitor is a publication of the Jamestown Foundation. It is researched and written under the direction of senior analysts Jonas Bernstein, Vladimir Socor, Stephen Foye, and analysts Ilya Malyakin, Oleg Varfolomeyev and Ilias Bogatyrev. If you have any questions regarding the content of the Monitor, please contact the foundation. If you would like information on subscribing to the Monitor, or have any comments, suggestions or questions, please contact us by e-mail at [email protected], by fax at 301-562-8021, or by postal mail at The Jamestown Foundation, 4516 43rd Street NW, Washington DC 20016. Unauthorized reproduction or redistribution of the Monitor is strictly prohibited by law. Copyright (c) 1983-2002 The Jamestown Foundation Site Maintenance by Johnny Flash Productions