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Uzbekistan's Forgotten Uprising

Local residents carry the body of a victim of the clashes between government forces and local protesters at the central square in the Uzbek town of Andijon on May 14, 2005.
Local residents carry the body of a victim of the clashes between government forces and local protesters at the central square in the Uzbek town of Andijon on May 14, 2005.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., declared that "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

In the spirit of King's words, the brave souls who stood up to tyrannical injustice in Tunisia and Egypt have inspired a wave of protesters to challenge unjust regimes in Libya and across the greater Middle East.

However, in other corners of the Muslim world, it appears that too many injustices simply go willfully unnoticed, making it impossible to confront and eradicate them.

The remarkable silence that surrounds the 2005 Andijon massacre in Uzbekistan serves as a glaring reminder that some of the world's most brutal regimes can get away with mass murder with the tacit support of Europe and the United States and, consequently, threaten justice everywhere.

Even when the bloody events were unfolding in Andijon, Uzbekistan, on May 13, 2005, Western governments and media did not pay particular attention. Preoccupied with two costly wars replete with their own justifications, tragedies, and plans for a just future, the political and media machinery of the West were too busy to devote time or energy to this Central Asian tragedy.

Media Blackout

Satellite news networks like Al-Jazeera did not have correspondents on the ground in Andijon's Babur Square, where tens of thousands of Uzbeks gathered to demand bread, jobs, and better education from the regime of President Islam Karimov. In fact, the Uzbek government successfully effected a blackout that put a virtual freeze on information coming into or out of the landlocked Central Asian state.

Consequently, the cries of hundreds of innocent protesters shot down by the Uzbek military and subsequent calls by human rights groups for an independent investigation would go largely unheard as Uzbek authorities worked quickly to clean up the blood, bury victims, and silence critics.

Much like the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989, the Andijon massacre crushed in its infancy a popular revolt against decades of injustice. Unlike Tiananmen, however, the Andijon anniversary goes by unnoticed every year with nary a Western commentator criticizing Uzbekistan. There is no inspirational clip of an Uzbek man standing in the path of a tank because there are no video clips or pictures -- just a long list of dead and missing.

Hence, the plight of over 1,000 Uzbeks in Andijon that May day in 2005 remains but a black-and-white World Brief buried in the back pages of the Western press, while similar and in many cases less catastrophic events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere are transmitted incessantly around the world and commented on by seemingly anybody with a degree in international relations.

Why So Little Attention?

Given the heavy death toll, it is worth asking why the Andijon massacre receives so little press in the West while Tiananmen remains a vivid moment of Chinese brutality in the eyes of many Westerners, and the unfolding events Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya stand to define a generation. Although Central Asia generates little interest in the mainstream Western press beyond oil and Borat, Uzbekistan is an important ally in the "war on terror." It is a strategically located transit country between Russia and the South Asian markets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, and a major producer of natural gas.

Since the late 1990s, government forces have been doing battle with an indigenous rebel group called the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), whose stated aim is the overthrow of the Karimov regime and the establishment of Shari'a law. In the past, the group has received sanctuary in Afghanistan (they are currently biding their time among Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province).

Instability in Afghanistan has historically spelled trouble for Uzbekistan. Thus, Karimov continues to support NATO efforts in that war-torn country (currently, the Germans occupy a base on Uzbekistan's Afghan border) and, consequently, remains in the good graces of Western governments supporting efforts to rout the Taliban.

At the time of the Andijon massacre, the United States operated an air base in the southern Uzbek city of Karshi-Khanabad that facilitated access to the Afghan war zone. This fact, coupled with U.S. desires to counter Russian and Chinese influence in the region, explains why the United States works carefully to placate Karimov. Even the minimal U.S. criticism that the Andijon massacre generated led to the weakening of U.S. influence in Uzbekistan, most notably the loss of the strategically located air base.

Fostering good relations with strategic nations and energy-rich countries often requires that Western governments compromise their ideals. Weighing the damage done by ignoring (and perhaps even tacitly supporting) the brutal tactics of Central Asian allies is something Western citizens need to confront as the war on terror drags on. It seems sensible to track down, smoke out, bring to justice, or have justice brought to terrorists after they remorselessly kill innocents. A more perplexing question is how to deal with our allies when they cut down innocents in mass numbers. If Western governments tolerate this injustice, they are in danger of threatening justice everywhere.

Uzbekistan continues officially to claim that only 187 people were killed on Babur Square in 2005, mostly government troops and terrorists trying to incite rebellion. Uzbek leaders persist in the duties of state -- receiving diplomatic visitors, drafting and passing legislation, and attending international conferences. Meanwhile, Western leaders condemn Iran and now Libya for mercilessly massacring their own people.

Although this criticism is welcome and necessary, the eerie silence regarding Andijon is not lost on Uzbekistan's leaders, who given the choice of sacrificing their power or their people would certainly sacrifice their people. If the revolutions engulfing the Middle East inspire Uzbeks to revolt again, it will be interesting to observe how the West reacts to the inevitable slaughter of innocents that will ensue.

Dana E. Abizaid is a historian and journalist based in Istanbul. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL