Accessibility links

Kazakhstan: Exiled Uighurs Step Up Fight Against Beijing

  • Jeremy Bransten

Almaty, Kazakhstan; 14 October 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Chinese government calls him a terrorist. He says he is a freedom fighter. But when 77-year-old Yusupbek Mukhlisi walks into a room, smooths his rumpled gray suit, and extends his hands in a gesture of greeting, the initial impression is more that of a benevolent grandfather.

"Salam Aleykum," he says, "Peace be with you, visitor. You do me a great honor with your visit." And Mukhlisi sits down, adjusting the embroidered skullcap that identifies him as a Uighur, the Turkic-Muslim people who inhabit China's westernmost Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

But ask Mukhlisi about his homeland, and the kind eyes quickly harden and the rhetoric soon turns fiery.

Mukhlisi is a Uighur by birth, but also by vocation. Having fled China for the Soviet Union back in 1960, he now heads the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan. East Turkestan is how the Uighurs refer to their homeland, rather than Xinjiang, which means "New Dominion" in Chinese.

Mukhlisi's organization, which operates in exile from its headquarters in neighboring Kazakhstan, has until this year advocated peaceful resistance to what it calls China's colonial rule. But no longer.

This March, Mukhlisi and two other Kazakhstan-based Uighur groups issued a common declaration, saying they were taking up arms to fight against Chinese oppression. The declaration followed the execution by Chinese authorities of three alleged Uighur separatists in the city of Urumqi. The executions provoked an anti-Chinese riot in the western city of Kuldja, that was brutally put down by Chinese troops. Reports say at least 10 people were killed in the incident, and up to 190 people injured. Three more Uighurs were subsequently executed by the Chinese authorities and 27 others given long prison sentences for allegedly organizing the riot.

The three Uighur groups claim that since then, over 60,000 alleged Uighurs separatists have been arrested by the Chinese and sent to labor camps. They say over 500 of them have died during internment or under interrogation.

Mukhlisi says the Uighurs must now fight for survival, or face eventual extermination by the Chinese government. All means are legitimate, he says, against policies aimed at making the Uighurs a minority on their own territory and quashing all resistance to Beijing's rule.

Given Beijing's clampdown on the region, it is impossible to confirm all of Mukhlisi's figures. But several trends are clear: over the past several years, China's central government has encouraged the mass migration of ethnic Chinese to Xinjiang, with the result that Han Chinese now roughly equal Uighurs in the region.

When Beijing imposed direct rule in 1949, the ratio was 96 percent ethnic Uighurs to four percent Han Chinese. When it is completed in two years, a new railway line spanning the length of Xinjiang is expected to further encourage Chinese migration.

This is coupled with strict enforcement of a two-child per family policy for "ethnic minorities." Sean Roberts, an American anthropologist who is a specialist on Xinjiang, says that to the agriculturalist Uighurs, who see large families as both a source of pride and economic necessity, this is tantamount to cultural genocide.

The new Chinese immigrants are put to work in Xinjiang's rapidly-expanding industrial sector, helping to mine coal, uranium and precious minerals, which are then sent on to other parts of China or sold to fill Beijing's treasury.

On the cultural front, the government this year unveiled a new campaign it labeled "strike hard," aimed at dislodging separatism and what it termed religious extremism. Travelers to the region, including Roberts, confirm an increasing Chinese military presence in the region and the closing of hundreds of mosques and cultural centers in recent months.

Mukhlisi says each new Chinese repression wins new converts to his underground army, which he claims now numbers 30,000 young radicals. Mukhlisi's group claims credit for a series of bombs which exploded this spring in Xinjiang's largest city, Urumqi, as well as in Beijing itself.

"Our targets are not civilian," he says, but he gleefully details how his men have already succeeded in raiding six major Chinese arms depots in the region. To supplement the raids, Mukhlisi says Chinese soldiers on patrol are often kidnapped and robbed or else paid off to surrender their weapons.

All this puts Kazakhstan's government in a bind. Almaty wants to develop its economic relations with China, and feels awkward about hosting the leaders of an increasingly-radical Uighur diaspora. But at the same time, it doesn't want to be seen repressing the Kazakh's ethnic cousins.

Yusupbek Mukhlisi remembers the short-lived, independent republic of Turkestan in the 1940s. He remembers an independent Tibet and he intends to keep fighting against Beijing.

"It's simple," he says, "Either we fight, or we will disappear off the face of the Earth."

(This article is one of a six-part series on Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.)