UIGHUR PROBLEM RESURFACES IN CENTRAL ASIA
Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 10
On May 8, Kyrgyzstan announced that a court in the city of Osh had just sentenced five men to various terms of imprisonment for “terrorism” and conspiracy to create a state of Uighuristan out of territories belonging to China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Three of those sentenced are Uighur emigres from China’s Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region, a fourth is a citizen of Turkey and the fifth is an ethnic Karachai citizen of Russia. The long-drawn-out trial determined that this “extremist Islamic” group had been involved in two bomb explosions in 1998 in Osh, one on a bus and one in an apartment building, which killed five innocent bystanders.
The announcement, issued by Kyrgyzstan’s National Security Ministry, contained the mix of mutually inconsistent statements, familiar from the communiques of Russian and Central Asian security and law enforcement authorities in similar situations. It portrayed the group as “Islamic fundamentalist” and “Wahhabi,” notwithstanding the fact that the Uighur movement is a secular nationalist one. The announcement described the Turkish conspirator as a member of a Grey Wolves’ network, as if that pan-Turkic organization were still active, and ignoring the fact that Grey Wolves’ ideology is strongly secular. And it theorized that the Karachai conspirator from Russia had been trained by Chechens and been “sent to Central Asia “by [Jordanian citizen and Chechen commander] Khattab himself in order to spread Wahhabi ideas.”
The sentencing followed in the wake of the assassination of Nigmat Bazakov, a leader of the Uighur community of Kyrgyzstan and publisher of the Ittipak newspaper. Kyrgyzstan, like Kazakhstan, is home to an Uighur minority which is concentrated in areas bordering on China. That minority is essentially indigenous but includes some refugees from across the border.
Last week the Uighur diaspora leader, Erkin Alptekin, who is also one of the leaders of the Geneva-based Organization of Unrepresented Peoples, paid a visit to Bishkek in an attempt to discuss the situation of the Uighur minority with the authorities of Kyrgyzstan. Alptekin criticized the misrepresentation of Uighurs as “Wahhabis” and “Islamic fundamentalist” by local mass media; asked the authorities to clarify the circumstances of Bazakov’s assassination; registered concern lest Kyrgyzstan extradite some refugee Uighurs to China in response to demands by Beijing; and noted that insecurity among Uighurs in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan is beginning to generate an outmigration of that minority to points further west. An estimated total of one million Uighurs currently reside in those three Central Asian countries, in Turkey and in the West. Uighurs and other Turkic Muslims are said to total up to ten million in Xinjiang-Uighuria.
Central Asian leaders are careful to reassure Beijing that they will not allow Uighur irredentism to develop in their countries among Uighur minorities. That is the meaning of pledges to curb “ethnic separatism,” which feature at every high-level meeting of Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders with their Chinese counterparts, both bilaterally and in the framework of the Shanghai-Five group of countries.
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