China seeks to crush Uighurs' independence bid Muslim rebels blow up bridges, rail lines in oil-rich western province

August 11, 1996|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

ALMATY, Kazakhstan -- On a brilliant Saturday morning, 300 Uighur families gathered for what should have been an unabashedly happy occasion: the opening of a striking turquoise and white mosque featuring designs from their homeland across the border in China.

But these are dark days for the Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs), the world's oldest Turkic people and the last large ethnic group in Central Asia living under foreign domination.

Whether at the oases of Xinjiang province on China's western frontier or abroad in countries like Kazakhstan, the Uighurs are suffering from China's effort to crush their drive for independence.

For Uighurs in China, the latest battle is an escalation of a struggle 200 years old.

Young radicals, faced with broad-based discrimination and new waves of Chinese immigration into their nominally autonomous region, have unleashed the biggest wave of separatist activity in 50 years.

Activists have blown up bridges and railway lines and assassinated pro-Beijing Islamic leaders, according to Uighur and Chinese sources.

Beijing has responded with a fury not seen in decades. More than 5,000 Uighurs have been arrested, "illegal" mosques closed, Uighur officials replaced with Chinese. A grant of broad new powers to police to arrest and execute separatists has resulted in at least 200 deaths, according to internal Chinese documents.

The latest campaign to wipe out Uighur nationalism began in late April, when China signed an agreement with its Central Asian neighbors to combat separatism. Leaders of the 500,000 Uighurs living in these countries, including Kazakhstan, say the local governments have become less hospitable to their efforts to help the Uighur population in China.

Some of their worries were temporarily set aside this month at the new Sultan Kurgan mosque. Hundreds of Uighurs came here to celebrate their notably relaxed brand of Islam by eating, drinking and dancing. Children ran through the mosque, while gold-toothed women served large platters of dumplings, noodles, raisins, nuts and apricot tarts.

In the background were the snow-capped peaks of the Alatau mountains, which separate Kazakhstan from China.

Roundups and bombings

Through the mountain passes come travelers carrying regular reports of new bombings, roundups and executions.

Most members of the overseas community say they send back little more than their prayers, but some exiled Uighurs say they carry out underground work to support the establishment of a Uighur state.

The Organization for the Liberation of Uighurstan, for example, a group based here in the Kazakh capital of Almaty, says it has organized Uighurs in a tight, communist-style structure, with a leadership committee and 163 cells throughout Central Asia. Information is exchanged with Xinjiang Province and attacks coordinated, said the group's leader, Ashir Vahidi, a former colonel in the Soviet armed forces.

But weapons have been scarce since 1983 when China tightened its border with Afghanistan, Vahidi said. So ideological work has continued, but few Uighurs have been armed.

"We have convinced [Uighurs in Xinjiang] that their choice is to stay at home and die, or die fighting for their motherland," Vahidi said, pounding the table with both fists. "The problem is weapons. We need more weapons. We need your help."

In a bid to get more international aid, Uighurs recently opened a lobbying office in Washington -- the East Turkestan National Freedom Center. Their model is another Chinese minority group seeking independence -- the Tibetans, led by their spokesman, the Dalai Lama, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his commitment to nonviolence.

But while wanting to emulate the Tibetans' success in gaining attention, many Uighurs say they favor the use of violence.

Only hope is "radical"

"We tried to work within the Chinese system, but we realize it is impossible for the Chinese to keep their word," said Usupbek Mukhlisi, head of another Almaty-based Uighur organization, the United National Liberation Front of East Turkestan. "Everyone now realizes that the only hope is the radical way."

Kazakh officials refuse to allow Mukhlisi's and Vahidi's groups to be registered as required by law. This makes the groups illegal, but officials have not confiscated materials or prevented newsletters from being distributed.

Vahidi was recently beaten by masked thugs, an attack that cost the 73-year-old his sight in one eye. He and others allege that the Kazakh secret police was behind the attack, and cite a speech he had made saying Uighurs had been betrayed by their friends.

The growing feeling of betrayal can be traced to the agreement reached in April between China and its western neighbors to crack down on separatist activities. Kakharman Khozhamberdi, leader of Kazakhstan's only legal Uighur group, the Regional Uighur Association, put it this way: "I thought the [Kazakh] government would have had more compassion toward us, a fellow Turkic people."

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