CHINA/XINJIANG: Fresh Unrest 'Unlikely' After 'Cruel' Suppression of 1997 Uprising.

Igor Rotar, Keston News Service, 18 March 2002

Five years after the crushing of an uprising by Uighur Muslims in the city of Yining in the north-west of the Xinjiang-Uighur Autonomous Region of China, 390 kms (240 miles) west of the region's capital Urumqi and 80 kms (50 miles) east of the border with Kazakhstan, local residents told Keston News Service that fresh unrest in the city is unlikely in the near future. "There is still a very strong military presence in the city," one local Uighur told Keston on a visit to the city from 9 to 11 March. "The Chinese crushed the uprising so cruelly that there are not likely to be any hotheads willing to resume resistance."

Local people told Keston that five years on, the fate of most of those held in mass arrests throughout the city after the military were brought in to crush the uprising is still not known. None of those arrested for taking part in the uprising were released. Residents recalled that when all the prisons were full to bursting the police began herding those arrested into metal garages, first of all removing their shoes. As a result of the severe cold, Keston was assured by its informants, 16 teenagers died.

The main aim of Keston's visit was to gather information about the February 1997 uprising and how the authorities' policy towards local Muslims changed after the suppression of the uprising. Since in China giving unsanctioned information can result in imprisonment, Keston cannot give the names of its informants.

The 1997 uprising was the largest in China in the past decade. At least 25 people were killed and 200 wounded as the authorities moved to suppress it. There are two widely differing versions of the events: that of the Chinese authorities and that of Uighur dissidents.

According to the Chinese authorities' official account, during the celebration of Chinese New Year several thousand young Uighurs aged 17-18 attacked with knives a group of Chinese celebrating on the streets. Some of the dead Chinese were burned by their attackers. This account is at least partially confirmed by residents who cannot be suspected of bias. Keston was told on 9 March in Yining by members of the local Russian community (about 100 ethnic Russians, Chinese citizens whose families emigrated to China in the 1930s, live in the city) that during the unrest crowds of Uighurs killed any Chinese they met and ransacked Chinese shops and restaurants.

According to the Uighur side (Keston talked on 10 March in Yining with Uighur eye-witnesses of the uprising), the conflict actually began to emerge in 1995. It was at this time that Uighur young people began forming so-called brotherhoods. The members of these associations had the aim of pursuing a life-style strictly in accordance with Islamic traditions. Members of the brotherhoods actively promoted an Islamic way of life among their fellow Uighurs and also engaged in anti-state propaganda. For example, "brothers" tried to persuade their fellow Uighurs that those who worked in state bodies "could not be considered Uighurs and Muslims". "Brothers" spent almost all their time together. Apart from reading the Koran, they attached great importance to physical exercise, believing that a true Muslim should be physically strong. This represented in effect the revival in Yining of the "gaps" - semi-sporting groups of men common in medieval Central Asia in the time of resistance to Mongol rule. The members of the medieval gaps practised martial arts in order to resist the invaders and also read the Koran and the writings of Muslim authorities under the guidance of mullahs.

Similar attempts to revive gaps took place also in post-Soviet Central Asia. In 1991 in the city of Namangan, a regional centre in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley, the Adolat (Justice) movement suddenly emerged. Adolat members, mostly young people, formed something like the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards. Young people with green armbands appeared in the most unexpected places in the city and dealt as they saw fit with those they considered to be breaking the law. The Adolat movement subsequently became the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which is today trying to remove the secular government of Uzbekistan by force of arms.

Gradually members of the brotherhoods gained more and more authority among the local Uighur population in Yining. In January 1997 the Chinese authorities decided to put a stop to the brotherhoods. The police began what they called "a purge of the city of criminal elements". However, local Uighurs told Keston that in reality they arrested not criminals but members of the brotherhoods. In response to the repression young Uighurs demonstrated on the streets of the city on 5 February 1997 with banners reading "Don't stop us from being Muslims" and "We want to pray". The police tried to arrest the demonstrators, but they resisted. Armed with sticks, stones and petrol bombs the Uighurs joined battle with the police. It was only after the military were brought into Yining that the uprising was crushed.

After the suppression of the uprising the Chinese authorities began treating almost all Uighurs from Yining with suspicion. It is still not safe for local Uighurs to travel away from Yining as the police in other towns treat them with suspicion. One young man told Keston that he was arrested with his friends in a hotel room in Urumqi while they were praying. The police were suspicious of Uighurs from Yining praying together. They held the young people in prison for over a month trying to get them to confess to links with Islamic terrorist organisations.

The Yining uprising also revealed an interesting fact: contrary to the expectations of the Uighurs, the local ethnic Kazakhs did not join the uprising. Yining is the capital of Xinjiang's Ili-Kazakh Autonomous District and Kazakhs form about 30 percent of the city's population. "We thought the Kazakhs would support us as fellow-Muslims, but our hopes were unfounded," Uighurs told Keston.

As Keston found, the Kazakhs as a nomadic people are far less religious that the traditionally sedentary Uighurs. For example, it is almost impossible to find any Kazakhs in local mosques. Unlike the Uighurs, most of whom see the Chinese as invaders, most Kazakhs have no marked antipathy to the settlers from the East. For example, unlike the Uighurs, the Kazakhs are happy to send their children to Chinese schools and to go to Chinese restaurants unconcerned that the food is not prepared in accordance with Muslim regulations. There are over a million Kazakhs in Xinjiang and in the north they form the majority. This suggests that at least in the north of the region mass unrest is unlikely.

However, the problem of disunity among Muslims of different nationalities may also play a role in the south of the region. Relations between Uighurs and Tajiks are distant. There are about 20,000 Tajiks living in a compact area in the extreme south of Xinjiang near the border with Pakistan in the Tashkurgan Tajik Autonomous District. The Chinese Tajiks are, like many in the Badakhshan region of Tajikistan, Ismaili Muslims (a movement in the Shia branch of Islam whose spiritual leader is the Aga Khan). They hardly ever intermarry with the Uighurs, whom they do not accept as fellow-believers. Keston's translator, a Uighur, warned that he could not guarantee a productive visit to Tashkurgan as the Tajiks do not trust the Uighurs. (END)