The Growing Problem Of Uighur Separatism

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 8

‘Chinese Chechnya’ is how – only half-jokingly – Central Asians refer to the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region (XUAR) of China (historically known as Eastern Turkistan). Such a comparison is not without reason. Like Chechnya, the area’s population is mixed: In the XUAR, approximately half the population is Turkic-Muslim Uighurs; the other half is ethnic Chinese. A conflict with a lengthy and violent past, Manchurian-Chinese forces finally broke the resistance of the Uighur army in 1759, capturing territories which are referred to as Xinjiang, (literally ‘new frontier’ in Chinese). Since its incorporation into China proper as the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, Uighurs have organized more than 400 uprisings.

Uighurs-Chinese relations have been especially tense since the beginning of 1950, when Beijing began a massive resettlement of ethnic Chinese into XUAR. In 1949, there were only 200,000 Chinese, or about 10 percent of the population in Xinjiang; at present there about 8 million, or roughly 50 percent of the population. Starting in the early 1990s, a powerful underground separatist movement began operating in XUAR, periodically organizing terrorist acts and uprisings: Bus explosions in 1990 in Kashgar and in 1992 in Urumqi; a 1990 uprising in the village of Barin, on the outskirts of Kashgar, after the authorities closed access to a mosque; an uprising in 1995 in the town of Khotan, 530 kilometers east of Kashgar, after the authorities deposed the local imam. In recent years, more serious unrest has occurred. In February 1997 in the town of Inin, real fighting raged for several days between Uighur youth and police, killing 55 Chinese and 25 Uighurs.

A Unique Identity

Upon arriving in XUAR, the appearance of the streets, bazaars and people’s clothing gives one the feeling of being in Central Asia. The Uighur language is so closely related to Uzbek that local people understand the latter very well. Unlike Central Asia, however, where relations with the Soviet Union and now the Russian Federation remain friendly, the overwhelming majority of Uighurs view the Chinese as occupiers. An implicit apartheid in the region, with Chinese and Uighurs shopping in separate stores and dining in separate restaurants, bears this out. One reason for the division comes from Islamic prescriptions about the favorable treatment of Jews and Christians – so-called ‘People of the Book’ – as opposed to those of other creeds. The following sentiment is often expressed in Uighuristan: “According to Islam, Confucianism and Buddhism are equal to idolatry, and that is why we cannot treat the Chinese with respect.”

Uighurs also tend to be far more zealous Muslims than their Central Asian neighbors. The majority of local, married women wear burqas (a head to toe veil), which is quite rare in Central Asia, and middle-aged men prefer to have beards. One Muslim in Xinjiang explained, “In the Quran it is written that a Muslim should not live under the authority of infidels, and that is why we will never reconcile with the Chinese occupation.” Other interviewees were especially indignant about Chinese laws restricting the number of births. They complained, “According to our Muslim customs, the more children there are in the house, the more there is happiness. The Chinese law insults our faith.”

Another source of resentment is that in Xinjiang, schoolchildren and government employees are prohibited from visiting mosques. A 15-year-old schoolgirl, Saera, told me, “I am a Muslim and therefore I have to wear hijab (a headscarf), but at school we are prohibited from wearing such ‘wild attire.’ Every day I set out for school in the clothes that are appropriate for a Muslim girl, and when I reach the school yard I change into the hated school uniform!” Uighur government employees resort to similar tactics. As soon as they retire, they begin to perform namaz (prayer) not just five times a day, as is prescribed for a Muslim, but ten or even fifteen times, in order to compensate for the lost years.

Increased Repression

Until about 10 years ago, Beijing interfered little in the lives of its Muslim population. But this changed when Chinese authorities concluded that there was a clearly defined religious dimension to Uighur separatism, an opinion not without merit. Separatists, as a rule, base their position on religious grounds. Consider the following passage from an audiocassette illegally distributed by separatists in Uighuristan:

“Allah directly states that the unbelievers, who insult those who are faithful to Muhammad, will be eliminated by the Mujahideen. This is why the liberation of our Motherland from the Chinese aggressors is our objective enlightened by Islam. The elimination of Muslims, expropriation of their land and property, allows us to pursue armed resistance…Whether we want it or not, a long and bloody struggle awaits us. We shall be killed by the Chinese aggressors. Each Muslim should study military affairs. There is no aggressor who would be willing to liberate the land just because we throw tomatoes at him. Those who enter with arms will leave by arms. Allah prescribed this path to us, just like prayers and zakat.”

Beijing has adopted a very harsh attitude toward the separatist movement. Practically all of the interviewees stated they could receive a lengthy prison sentence simply for expressing support for Uighur independence in private conversations. Yet it is precisely such measures which have prompted separatists to establish close ties with Islamic radicals from Central Asia, where there is a significant Uighur diaspora (approximately 400,000). Foreign headquarters of Uighur separatists operated openly in Almaty and Bishkek in the mid-1990s. However, under pressure from Beijing, Central Asian leaders have demanded that Uighur populations not support their ethnic brethren across the border – at least not openly – driving Uighurs underground, where they began to seek out ties with radical Islamic groups.

Increased Violence

On May 31, 1998 in Kyrgyzstan’s southern regional center of Osh, a taxi exploded, killing two people and wounding twelve. Two days later, a bomb in an apartment building resulted in the deaths of two more people, including a woman in her eighth month of pregnancy. After one and a half years, Kyrgyz authorities arrested five people for these attacks, three of whom were Chinese citizens. According to official information, these individuals sought to provoke a conflict between ethnic Uzbeks and Kyrgyz. The three detained citizens of China allegedly belonged to a separatist organization and had received training in the camps of Khattab, a Jordanian-born field commander formerly active in Chechnya.

In 2000, police operatives in Almaty discovered an underground headquarters for Uighur separatists from the XUAR. Members of the cell resisted capture and were killed in the ensuing shootout. In January 2001, the chairman of the Cultural and Educational Society of Uighurs of Kyrgyzstan, “Ittipak” Negmat Bazakov, was killed in Bishkek for his refusal to donate money to the underground separatist movement. In May of last year, Kyrgyz security services claimed to have arrested the individuals responsible for a series of explosions in Bishkek marketplaces and a bank in Osh. One of the detainees – Azizbek Karimov – was linked to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). Karimov confessed that he had received the assignment and money to commit the terrorist acts from the IMU leadership. Three Uighurs of Chinese citizenship were members of Karimov’s cell.

Further Expansion

In December 2003 in Almaty, Kazakh security services uncovered a cell of the Islamic Party of Turkistan (IPT), established by the Chinese citizen Aisu (Khasam) Maksum in the 1980s. Initially called the Eastern Turkistani Islamic Party, a videocassette distributed by the party states that: “in August 2000, because Turkic brothers [i.e., non-Uighurs] joined our ranks, and because our party operated in the Turkic world, it was renamed the Islamic Party of Turkistan. The main goal of the organization is the creation of the state of Eastern Turkistan on the territory of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China by means of armed struggle.”

Authorities discovered weapons, ammunition and improvised explosive devices with the arrested individuals. This particular cell was comprised of Uighurs from China, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. The investigation later revealed that some of the Kazakhstani members of the cell received training at IPT camps in Afghanistan. This branch also maintained close contacts with the IMU and, through a Chechen intermediary, also had ties to the Chechen diaspora in Turkey and to Chechen militants. Though members were primarily engaged in carrying out ideological propaganda among Kazakhstani Uighurs, they were also involved in raising funds among Uighur businessmen for armed struggle against Beijing.

According to the head of the Committee of National Security of Kazakhstan, Nurtay Duratbaev, the organization was preparing to commit terrorist acts. Several witnesses testified at trail that – following instructions from Maksum – the cell was planning an attack targeting the American military base in Kyrgyzstan. Pakistani authorities’ subsequent confiscation of blueprints showing the location of the US Embassy, the American military base, and a synagogue in Kyrgyzstan from Uighur members of IPT provided additional, albeit indirect, confirmation of an IPT plot.

The trend of these events reveals that Uighur separatists are increasingly joining forces with Central Asian Islamic extremists to act as a unified front. This combination could well yield an expanded radical Islamic movement encompassing both former Soviet Central Asia as well as Xinjiang – a challenge for authorities in both the region and the US to confront. As in Chechnya, ethnic nationalism in Xinjiang, coupled with a repressive regime and an available radical ideology, may well plunge the region into a protracted and violent struggle.