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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Protest in Muslim Province in China

April 4, 2008

By HOWARD W. FRENCH
The New York Times
April 2, 2008

SHANGHAI — Chinese officials said Wednesday that they were grappling
with ethnic unrest on a second front, in the northwestern region of
Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims protested Chinese rule late last month
even as Tibetans rioted in the southwest.

One Uighur demonstration, which appears to have been quickly suppressed,
took place in the town of Khotan on March 23, at the same time China was
deploying thousands of security forces across a broad swath of its
southwest to put down Tibetan unrest.

Officials said the protest was staged by Islamic separatist groups
seeking to foment a broader uprising in Xinjiang. China often blames any
ethnic disturbances on what it calls splittists and terrorists. Human
rights groups say that Chinese Uighurs, like Tibetans, have fought for
greater freedom to practice their religion as well as more autonomy from
Beijing.

The news of the protest in Xinjiang underscored the breadth of China’s
problems with ethnic and religious minority groups in the country’s vast
western regions, where there is a long history of unhappiness with
Chinese rule. Ethnic groups Beijing has sought to pacify with economic
development programs and suppress with heavy police presence appear to
be using the upcoming Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing, as an
opportunity to press their grievances and attract international
attention to their causes.

“A small number of elements tried to incite splittism, create
disturbances in the market place and even trick the masses into an
uprising,” a statement published on the Web site of the Khotan
government said in the first official acknowledgment of the disturbances.

Uighur residents of Khotan reached by telephone either claimed not to
understand Chinese or refused to talk about recent events there. But Han
residents said that as many as 500 Uighurs protested in the center of
the city. Some reports have said the Uighurs, who are Muslim, were
objecting to restrictions on wearing Islamic scarves and head coverings.
Some interviewees, however, said the protesters were seeking
independence. The demonstrators were quickly arrested by security forces
who took control of the area.

Zhu Linxiu, a senior police official in Khotan, declined to comment in
detail about the incident, saying it was “inappropriate to publicize.”
He refused to confirm the number of protesters or arrests, but said the
demonstrators were “instigated by bad elements.”

Two weeks before the reported protest in Khotan, China announced the
discovery of what it called a terrorist plot in Xinjiang, which it said
involved the smuggling of combustible liquids onto a commercial airliner
by a Uighur woman who had spent time in neighboring Pakistan.

Officials called the incident part of a terrorist campaign by a radical
Islamic independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Uighur
groups have denied the reports, and called them part of an effort to
justify heavily stepped-up security in the region and the suppression of
dissent before the Olympics.

In recent days, Beijing has also accused supporters of the exiled
Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of plotting a suicide bombing
campaign against China, as part of a separatist campaign.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International criticized the government for its
crackdown on protest in Tibetan areas of China, and said the country’s
efforts to silence dissidents before the Olympics violated Beijing’s
pledges to improve human rights before it hosts the games in August.
“The Olympic Games have so far failed to act as a catalyst for reform,”
the international human rights groups said in a statement. “Unless
urgent steps are taken to redress the situation, a positive human rights
legacy for the Beijing Olympics looks increasingly beyond reach.”

A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, denounced the Amnesty
statement as “biased,” saying “anyone planning to use the Olympics to
threaten China, or planning to put pressure on China, has miscalculated.”

Like Tibetans in Tibet, Uighurs have historically been the predominant
ethnic group in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang
Uighur Autonomous Region. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, indigenous groups
have chafed at the arrival of large numbers Han Chinese, the country’s
predominant ethnic groups, who have migrated to western regions with
strong government support.

Uighurs, like Tibetans, have complained that recent Han arrivals now
dominate their local economies, even as the Han-run local governments
insert themselves deeper into schools and religious practices to weed
out cultural practices that officials fear might reinforce a separate
ethnic or religious identity. In telephone interviews, Han residents of
Khotan and nearby areas said there was a long history of distrust and
tension between Han and Uighur communities. Some Han migrants insisted
the atmosphere remained volatile, and said that the Uighurs had been
inspired by the recent Tibetan unrest.

“Some of jobless people here have heard about the situation Tibet, and
they also want to make trouble,” said Wang Guoliang, a Han grocery store
owner in Khotan. “They want independence and they want to expel the Han,
whom they dislike. Most of the main cadres in the Party, from counties
and the cities to the provincial level are all Hans, while the local
level officials are Uighur.” Mr. Wang called the purging of Uighur
officials several years ago after a previous bout of tension “the root
of the protest.”

Another Han, a clerk in a local bank who would only give his name as
Chen, said there had been a long history of discontent in the region,
and that people had been “on the lookout” since mid-March. At his bank,
Mr. Chen said there had been grumblings over the restrictions on Muslim
headgear, which he disagreed with, saying: “It is their national custom
and we should respect it.”
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