Friday 4 April 2008

China Confirms Protests by Uighur Muslims

by Howard W. French New York Times 3 April 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 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 Hotan on March 23, at the same time China was deploying thousands of security officers across much 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 accuses what it calls splitists and terrorists of being behind any ethnic disturbance. 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 China¹s problems with ethnic and religious minority groups in the country¹s 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 a heavy police presence appear to be using the coming Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing in August, as an opportunity to press their grievances and attract international attention. ³A small number of elements tried to incite splitism, create disturbances in the marketplace and even trick the masses into an uprising,² a statement published on the website of the Hotan local government said in the first official acknowledgment of the disturbances. Uighur residents of Hotan 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 had protested. Some reports have said the Uighurs were objecting to restrictions on wearing Islamic scarves and head coverings. Some people who were interviewed, however, said the protesters were seeking independence. The demonstrators were arrested by the security forces. Zhu Linxiu, a senior police official in Hotan, declined to comment about the protests, saying it was ³inappropriate to publicize.² He refused to confirm the number of protesters or arrests, but said the demonstrators were ³instigated by bad elements.² Two weeks before the reported protest in Hotan, 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 increased security in the region and the suppression of dissent before the Olympics. In recent days, the Chinese government has also accused supporters of the Dalai Lama, the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, of plotting a suicide bombing campaign against China, as part of a separatist movement. On Tuesday, Amnesty International criticized the government for its crackdown on protests in Tibetan areas of China, and it said the country¹s efforts to silence dissidents before the Olympics violated the government¹s pledges to improve human rights before the Games. ³The Olympic Games have so far failed to act as a catalyst for reform,² Amnesty International said. ³Unless urgent steps are taken to redress the situation, a positive human rights legacy for the Beijing Olympics looks increasingly beyond reach.² A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Jiang Yu, denounced the Amnesty statement as ³biased.² 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 of Han Chinese, the country¹s predominant ethnic group, 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 Hotan and nearby areas said there was a long history of distrust and tension between the Han and Uighurs. Some Han migrants said that the atmosphere remained volatile and that the Uighurs had been inspired by the Tibetan unrest. ³Some jobless people here have heard about the situation in Tibet, and they also want to make trouble,² said Wang Guoliang, a Han grocery store owner in Hotan. ³They want independence and they want to expel the Han, whom they dislike.²

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