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World: Uighurs Continue Quest For Independence From China

Prague, 1 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The ethnic problems in China's northwest are not abating despite Beijing's efforts to restore order there. Last week's execution of three Uighur men was only the most recent reminder of the trouble in the area, and it's obvious that the local population has not been brought back into line.

The Uighurs are a Turkic-Muslim people, most of whom inhabit present day China. The majority of them are found in Xinjiang Province, also called the Uighur Autonomous Region. They are the distant offspring of the nomadic tribes the Chinese kept at bay by building the Great Wall. The Uighurs, therefore, have been in contact with the Chinese for millennia. The two have seldom cooperated during all this time, with the result that the Uighurs have been either barely within the grasp of rulers in the east or just outside it.

After a short-lived independence in the 1940's this region once again returned to Chinese control. Historically, even when the Uighur people found themselves under the rule of the Son of Heaven they were still so far away that the rule was expressed more in the form of tribute and token displays of obedience. The very name Xinjiang is Chinese for "Frontier."

The same distant relationship would likely have remained in the communist era, except for certain factors. First among them is the fact that oil was discovered in the Tarim basin. Once the proper equipment is in place the area will provide China with an oil boom. Preparation to extract the oil requires manpower, and ethnic Han Chinese have been moving into the region in large numbers. They now are close to equalling the number of Uighurs already there (Uighurs number between 8 and 10 million, Han are an estimated 7 to 7.5 million).

Though this alone would eventually lead to problems between the two groups, the process has been accelerated by neighboring Turkic-Muslims in the former Soviet republics like Kazakhstan gaining their independence in late 1991.

The militant wing of the Uighurs which rekindled the movement for independence is the National United Revolutionary Front. Beginning in the Summer of 1996 they began to take a more active and violent course in the pursuit of liberation from China.

Local officials, some of them Muslim clerics, were assassinated. The Uighurs continued to be an annoyance but did not seem to be a problem out of control until riots erupted in the town of Yining on February 5 and 6 this year. Reports conflict as to casualties but 9 or 10 were killed and between 140 and 190 injured. Yining is near the Chinese-Kazak border and word of the riots leaked out before Chinese troops could entirely seal off the city. Later in February the National United Revolutionary Front claimed responsibility for a series of bombs which exploded on buses in Xinjiang's regional capital, Urumqi, and on February 25 they blew up on three buses in Beijing on the day of Deng Xiaoping's funeral.

In early April Uighurs exiled in Kazakstan said their group was responsible for blowing up a dam in Xinjiang. This was not confirmed by Chinese sources, and as four earthquakes struck Xinjiang about this time, if the dam was indeed destroyed it may be a case of the Uighur movement using the opportunity of natural damage to claim sabotage.

The events of April 24, surrounding the trial of 30 people implicated in the February Yining uprising are, however, undeniable. A court in Yining sentenced three of them to death, the other 27 received between 7 and 18 years in jail. As buses with prisoners attempted to leave the court area a crowd of Uighurs surrounded them and refused to give way. Security forces at the scene warned the crowd to disperse and when this failed, fired on the group killing two and wounding five. The executions of the three convicted men went ahead.

Uighurs in the Kazakh capital Almaty demonstrated on 28 April in front of the Chinese Embassy. Some of the leaders of the National United Revolutionary Front live in Almaty. Earlier in the year several elderly Uighur men demonstrated in front of the Chinese Embassy in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. As both these countries signed mutual agreements with China -- in 1996 and again last week -- not to support separatist movements, these protests are clearly an embarrassment for them. Yet the authorities seem loathe to resort to drastic measures to keep their cultural cousins in line.

The Secretary of Kazakstan's Security Council, Beksultan Sarsekov, summed it up best in late March. He said his country was "disturbed" by events in Xinjiang and carefully added a certain part of the "Chinese population" is seeking sovereignty and "would like to follow the Chechen scenario." But Sarsekov concluded by saying "The Chinese authorities are resorting to harsh measures," and "we as human beings can feel and understand (the Uighurs).

And the Chinese leadership have made this a "top priority" issue. The Chairman of the National People's Congress, Qiao Shi, said in early April it was necessary to "firmly oppose" separatism and religious extremism and vowed to "guard against and strike hard" at those who attempt to break up China. As a sign of resolve, and perhaps a hint of the difficulty China's leaders are expecting, Qiao added "It will be our top priority work at present and a task for a long time to come."