China battles Islamic radicals

By K.N. Pandita

It was Monday, 15 April 2013. China bamboozled India and the world by making lightening incursion into the Indian territory in Daulat Beg Oldi (DBO) sector in Ladakh. In barely three days, she reinforced the small advanced platoon- strong contingent with 1500 PLA heavily armed soldiers and massive war machine. Beijing has laid claim to the territory asserting she did not commit breach of bilateral agreement or international law.

As DOB operation was underway, hundreds of miles away, to the north of DOB in Kashghar, the fabulous town of old Turkistan with Uighur Sunni Muslims predominance, and once the trading hub along the Silk Route, was rattled by ethnic-communal clashes. Uighur and the Han Chinese were involved, leaving 21 people dead including 15 police officers and officials.

Kashgar remains a city where trading is very much in the blood. It stands on the Silk Road – the trade route of ancient times stretching from the eastern Chinese city of Xian to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.

The violence occurred on Tuesday 22 April afternoon in Bachu county, Kashgar prefecture. It is one of the sporadic clashes in Xinjiang in recent years. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said it had been a planned attack by a “violent terrorist group”. However, to Uyghur Muslims it is a struggle for liberation from Chinese hegemony.

Ever since eruption of clashes in Xinxiang for some years in the past, Beijing repeatedly points to undefined “violent terrorist group”. Diabolic reference is to Uighur Islamic radicals whose leaders are in close liaison with their counterparts in Pakistan.

Pakistani Islamist groups like PTT, LeT, JM, LJ and scores of others lionise themselves for taking a lead in sensitizing Islamic proclivities in regions where Muslims are in a minority. They project them as oppressed lot.

In the deadly riots of 2009 in Chinese Turkistan almost 200 people — mostly Han Chinese– were killed.

The situation has been worsening. Reporters who travel to the area are closely followed by government minders. Locals often hesitate to answer questions, fearing reprisals from government authorities.

Uighur exile groups often provide accounts that differ from the official Chinese government reports. Reconciling the two can be tricky.

China’s propaganda machine has warned domestic news outlets against conducting their own independent reporting on sensitive Xinjiang stories, ordering them to reprint official stories from China’s major state news agencies.

Foreign journalists can travel to the region but they frequently face intimidation and harassment when attempting to verify news of ethnic rioting or organised violence against government authorities.

According to an official version Tuesday’s clashes began as community workers searched homes for weapons. Three of the workers were killed as they were investigating reports of suspicious individuals at the home of a local resident.

Unarmed police then arrived to investigate the workers’ earlier reports and were attacked. Three “thugs” died and nine police officers were cornered in a house which was then set on fire. Chinese officials called it “planned terrorist attack” on innocent victims.

There was no information on the identity of the assailants. Ten of the officials and police killed were ethnic Uighurs, the local authorities said. Eight people were arrested.

Knowledgeable sources say the incident was caused by the killing of a young Uighur by Chinese “armed personnel” as a result of a government clean-up campaign.

Uighur are ethnically Turkic (Sunni) Muslims who make up about 45% of the region’s population; 40% are Han Chinese. China re-established control in 1949 after crushing short-lived state of East Turkestan.

Since then, there has been large-scale immigration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang that reminds us of similar immigration to Shia dominated Gilgit-Baltistan region by Sunni Chitralis and others when former President of Pakistan, General Pervez Musharraf headed the Northern Areas Corpse of Pakistan Army. Forcing demographic change is a weapon dear to China and Pakistan, the former motivated by ethnic and the latter by religion obsession.

Nine million Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic minority making up about 45% of the region’s population, fear erosion of traditional culture and weakening of Sunni Islamic tradition. They complain that influx of Han Chinese residents has marginalised them and reduced their status. They believe that it has been the official policy of regimes in Beijing to resettle millions of Han Chinese in the Western province of Xinjiang and this has resulted in the reversal of demographic balance in the region.

But Beijing authorities often blame violent incidents in Xinjiang on Uighur extremists seeking autonomy (read separation) for the region. Uighur activists, meanwhile, accuse Beijing of over-exaggerating the threat to justify heavy-handed rule.

With trade activities shifting to maritime option, the overland routes fell out of use and Kashgar became something of a backwater. Taking into account the economic backwardness of Kashgar region, Beijing’s thinking is that economic revolution in Uighur dominated areas would change separatist and radical mindset, almost akin to Indian thinking about Kashmir.

Beijing is pouring billions of dollars into Kashgar, a city which it designated as a special economic zone back in 2010. The authorities think of restoring Kashgar to the glory of Silk Road days, opening up markets in Central Asia and beyond.

Currently the largest construction project underway in Kashgar will house 100,000 people and have a shopping complex along with recreational facilities.

Beijing believes that economic development will help ease ethnic tensions not only in Kashgar but across the remote western Chinese region of Xinjiang – one of the poorest parts in the country.

Known as a major town in as early as the Han dynasty (206BC – 220AD) Kashgar covers an area of 554.8 square kilometres and has a population of 600,000 souls according to 2010 census. A decade ago the city was almost entirely Uighur but now a third of the population is Han Chinese. Many Uighurs complain that they are not sharing in the economic boom. They say that most of the profits are going to Han Chinese entrepreneurs.

Notwithstanding this, the air of tension and uncertainty reigns supreme in Kashgar. Will huge investment and launching of big developmental projects transform the fundamentalist and radical mindset? That is the real question. A fire engine sits outside the city’s biggest mosque equipped with water cannon ready to disperse any angry crowd.

In July, marking the third anniversary of the riots in Urumqi, the London-based rights group Amnesty International issued a statement saying that Chinese authorities “continue to silence those speaking out on abuses” in the region.

India should be closely watching how Beijing is dealing with such of Uighur radicals as are trained in the terrorist-fundamentalist training camps in Pakistan.


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