Hundreds of people are believed to have died in clashes between Uighur mujahideen and Chinese troops in Chinese-occupied East Turkestan during January and February. The fighting reached a peak during the last days of Ramadan, with particularly intense trouble reported in the town of Kuldzha (Yining). Chinese authorities have imposed a total news black-out and sealed the border with Kazkhstan, but Uighur groups based in Kazakhstan and Turkey say the fighting is continuing as Muslimedia went to press.
Uighur mujahideen operations against the Chinese authorities in east Turkestan (which the Chinese call Xinjiang) are known to have increased over the last year, although concrete information is difficult to obtain. The latest round of fighting culminated in the town of Kuldzha in the last week of Ramadan, when thousands of Uighurs youth took to the streets and seemed on the verge of a popular uprising.
Although reports about the course and causes of events leading up to the demonstrations vary and contradict each other, it appears that they began on February 5 and 6, and then took off on February 7-- Jumatul-Wida--after the Chinese authorities tried to subdue the initial demonstrations with characteristic brutality.
Uighur groups report that following the initial protests, in which dozens were arrested, the Chinese authorities publicly executed 30 Uighur activists in Kuldzha’s main square on the morning of February 7, as an example to the rest of the population. It is not clear whether the persons executed were from among those arrested over the previous couple of days. However, the parents and families of some of them were among the crowd which witnessed the executions.
The result was that thousands of Uighurs took to the streets following Juma’ prayers later that day and fought with Chinese troops stationed there. Government buildings were also attacked. Reports of the extent of damage and casualties vary. Official Chinese sources say that there was ‘minor unrest’ which was instigated by ‘foreign hostile forces’. Some sources also referred to ‘illegal religious organizations’, including one called Tabilike. These sources initially claimed that there had been no casualties and few arrests. They finally issued official figures stating that nine Han Chinese had been killed by the ‘rioters’ and a total of 198, including Uighurs and Han Chinese, were injured.
However, Uighur sources outside the country believe the fighting was far more extensive and damaging. Yusupbeg Mukhlusi, head of the United National Front of East Turkestan based in Almaty, the capital of Kazakhstan, said that about 100 people had been killed in total, including about 55 Chinese soldiers. Other Uighur sources based in Turkey put the total Muslim casualties at several hundred.
With an almost total black-out of information from the region, and communication links to Kuldzha cut, it is unclear whether the trouble has really been quelled or more news of the fighting will emerge. Most of the information so far has come from travellers from the region to Kazakhstan. The Chinese authorities however sealed the border between the two countries late on February 7. Exile groups basing their analysis on circumstantial evidence believe that the fighting is continuing in Kuldzha and elsewhere in the region. It appears that news from Kuldzha may have leaked through the official Chinese news black-out because of the exceptional scale of the fighting and the large numbers of Chinese troops involved.
The fact that there has been increased fighting in all parts of Chinese-occupied east Turkestan is clear from official sources. The Chinese media have increasingly been reporting military operations and victories against ‘splittists’ and ‘separatists’ since the autumn. This is clearly because the trouble is so well-known among local people that the authorities simply cannot ignore it. The official Xinjiang Daily, for example, reported on February 1 that Abdulahat Abdulixit, chairman of the Xinjiang Regional Government, had informed the regional legislature on January 25 that his security apparatus had conducted a major crackdown on separatist activities under orders from Beijing.
‘We smashed the violent, crazy activities of the enemy forces and destroyed their human war potential,’ he was quoted as saying. This clearly indicates major military operations rather than local unrest.
Reports of trouble in the region have been coming out for several months. The present troubles appear to be the largest since May, when 1,700 ‘criminals’ were reportedly arrested in a single crackdown. At that time, support for the jihad even among local Communist Party members and officials was hinted at in an order from Beijing that ‘party members and officials... implicated in political bombings, assassinations and other violent terrorist activities must be immediately investigated and punished with severity.’ Before that, there was a major uprising in 1992 which was also suppressed.
The East Turkestan region which constitutes China’s far north-western province of Xinjiang is a vast land mass representing some one-sixth of China’s territory but with a population of only about 18 million. It is part of the Central Asian heartland of Islam which was conquered by Manchu China in the 17th century. The area’s indigenous population is predominantly Uighur, a Turkic Muslim people. There are also considerable numbers of other Muslims, including Kazakhs and Kygyz.
The Muslims of the region have a long and proud record of agitating against Chinese rule but have always been brutally suppressed. Their demographic dominance is now threatened by Han Chinese moved in by the communist regime. Estimates of the number of Han vary from between 38 percent and 50 percent of the population. The Han dominate the Communist Party, the government, the police, professions and education facilities while the local Muslims are discriminated against.
In the last few years, with the resurgence of the global Islamic movement, and particularly the independence of the five former-Soviet Central Asian States after the collapse of the Russian empire, Uighur activism has reached the highest levels since the area briefly enjoyed independence as the East Turkestan Republic between 1944-1949. However, one of their problems is lack of outside support.
The Kazakh government signed an agreement with the Chinese government last autumn by which it promised not to support or encourage Uighur activists inside China. The changes taking place in Central Asia are not yet initiated by a local Islamic movement. Until such time, the prospects for the Uighurs of east Turkestan will remain limited.
Muslimedia - March 1-15, 1997