Uyghur minorities in Central Asia: an ethnic group between hammer and anvil

URUMQI, China (TCA) — China has offered its military support to Afghanistan to combat terrorism, which may spread toward Central Asia and the western Chinese province of Xinjiang bordering Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. This brings us back to the problem of the Uyghurs and the long list of ethnic minorities “without land” such as the Laps and the Basks in Europe, the Tamils, the Sikhs, the Kurds, and the Kashmiri in Asia. The nearly 10 million strong Uyghur nation, now mostly located within China, clash with the so-called national integrity of UN member states, with problems and solutions that not always match.

The claims made on behalf of the Uyghurs, an ancient nation making up for the majority of inhabitants of the autonomous Chinese northwestern Xinjiang province, are hardly being taken less seriously – at least by the central authorities in Peking and by a large number of mostly academic sympathizers in the west. The arrival of terrorism and “extremism” on international agendas adding to “separatism” as cross-border threats to peace and harmony around the globe has included the Uyghurs in the list of suspects sensitive to the danger not just in China but also in the Central-Asian former Soviet republics.

Increased migration

According to most ethnographers, the Uyghurs originate from the southeastern slopes of the Altay and the adjacent plains in the west of present-day Mongolia. In the early Middle Ages large groups of them migrated into the Tarim basin which has been their main territory ever since.

Increased migrations by Uyghur families and individuals to the newly independent former Soviet republics is a recent development of the last two decades. These days the numbers of Uyghurs in Central Asia are believed to be in the order of half a million, fifty per cent of which live in Kazakhstan with smaller numbers elsewhere in the region.

Most Uyghurs due to alleged terror links of some of them remain low on social ladders and looked upon with suspicion by Kyrgyz, Uzbek and Tajik communities alike. Only in Kazakhstan, which is host to a quarter million Uyghurs, they have reached a decent level of emancipation: no one less than the second-most powerful man in the country, PM Karim Masimov, is an ethnic Uyghur and publicly proud to be so.

Coming and going

The Uyghurs’ entry into the global public domain started (as far as generally known) in 1990 with reported mass gatherings ending in violent attacks against government buildings and looting of public markets in April 1990 in the town of Baren, followed through the decade in those of Khotan, Aksu and Yining in the following years. The first reports about calls for a “Holy War” date from 1997, initiated by two movements in allegiance, the Uyghurstan Liberation Front (ULF) and the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (UNRF).

Ever since, both “religious” and secular “liberation” groups have mushroomed in the area next to those two. These include the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the East Turkestan Islamic Party, the East Turkestan Opposition Party, the East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah, the Uyghur Liberation Organization, the Islamic Holy Warriors and the East Turkestan International Committee, the Lop Nor Wolves and the Free Turkestan Movement. All these movements are coming and going, merging and splitting, with ETIM and ETLO being the most feared and supposedly the most powerful ones.

If ETIM has been added to the list of “terror groups” maintained by the USA, Washington has refused to include ETLO and did not respond to a request to arrest its leader Mehmet Emin Hazret, then believed to be hiding in Afghanistan. Both groups are not just operating in Xinjiang but across the borders as well, and in particular ETIM is known to have been supported by Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda. China believes that more than 1,000 Uyghurs were trained by bin Laden’s forces in Afghanistan, with approximately 110 returning to China, about 300 allegedly captured or killed by U.S. forces, and about 600 escaping to northern Pakistan.

The ghost out of the bottle

The Uyghurs endure their plight on fertile grounds and under dangerous conditions. Two interrelated events in the post-Soviet era changed the status of “terrorists” from a local problem into a global one: the violent power takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 1996 and the subsequent attacks on New York and Washington in 2001. If the Taliban were then swiftly ousted from power in Afghanistan, transnational “Islamic” terrorism maintained Afghanistan as their home base up to this day. From a global “subterranean” source of conflict the so-called Islamic terror has grown into an international movement with specific territorial organizations. This is where the Uyghurs enter the scene, for with or without good reason the Chinese government is taking the risk that Xinjiang could become the next home base on that list since both peaceful Uyghur citizens and the few “militant” splinter groups unfortunately share the same ethnic origins.

A possible solution

While paramilitary, or even military, responses are, as it seems more and more, the only way to eradicate “Islamic” terror, charm offensives in the direction of populations so far cherishing the idea of national independence are much more effective. Local policies should go in the direction of offering the choice between a good “autonomous” life and a miserable one driven by terror and economic and social restrictions and Peking’s central authorities would do well to keep it in mind. This could make the “Uyghur problem” solvable, with the “solution” consisting of one key term: prosperity sharing. This would not only confine “Uyghur nationalism” to the realm of fantasy, but it would also turn the bulk of the Uyghur population into an ally against “Islamic” nihilism.