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Explained: Who are Uighurs?

Isa was supposed to visit Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama. Who are the Uighur people, and why is there tension between them and Beijing?

<div class="alignleft"> Dolkun Isa, an Uyghur leader from Xinjiang in China

India has cancelled the visa it had granted to Dolkun Isa, the executive chairman of the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, whom Beijing considers a terrorist. Isa was supposed to visit Dharamsala, the seat of the Dalai Lama. Who are the Uighur people, and why is there tension between them and Beijing?

Land and people

The Uighurs live in Xinjiang, the largest and most western of China’s administrative regions, which is surrounded by Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. (See map above) They are Muslim, speak a language close to Turkish, and are culturally and ethnically closer to Central Asia than the rest of China. Till recently, they were the majority in Xinjiang, but massive registered and unregistered settlements of Han Chinese and heavy troop deployments have likely changed that situation.


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Conflict with China

Xinjiang has long had a rebellious and autonomous streak, with the indigenous ethnic Uighurs clashing with the authorities. These was a spike in demonstrations and demands for independence in the early 1990s as the collapse of the Soviet Union gave birth to new nations, but these were rapidly crushed. Besides ethnicity and cultural dissonance, tensions are seen as rooted also in economic factors — as China’s development has lifted cities like Kashgar and Urumqi, young, qualified Han Chinese from eastern regions have come to Xinjiang, taking the most lucrative jobs and triggering resentment among the indigenous population. Uighurs allege the Chinese state has been repressive, clamping down on mosques and religious schools — in 2014, some government departments prohibited fasting during the month of Ramzan.

Violent protests

There were reports of Uighur activists being targeted ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and in the following year, there was massive rioting in the provincial capital of Urumqi, in which at least 200 people, mainly Han Chinese, were killed. As the government cracked down, the circles of resentment only widened, exploding periodically into violent incidents. In 2010, the government accused Uighur militants of driving a truck into security forces at Aksu, and of attacking, the following year, a police station at Hotan. In 2012, six Uighurs allegedly attempted to hijack an aircraft from Hotan to Urumqi. In April and June 2013, violent ethnic clashes between Uighurs and Han Chinese killed at least 56 people, and in October of that year, a car bomb went off at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, in which five people were killed. 2014 saw terrorists hacking at people at Kunming railway station, killing 29. Later that year, men with knives reportedly killed 96 in attacks on a police station and government offices in Yarkant, and 50 people died in blasts in Luntai county. In 2015, at least 50 coal miners were reportedly killed by knife-wielding terrorists at Aksu.

Who is to blame?

Exiled Uighur groups based outside China contest Chinese media versions of the attacks, and accuse Beijing of repression. China, on the other hand, has announced a campaign against terrorism, and has arrested and, in some cases, sentenced an executed, leaders of alleged terror groups. A senior Uighur academic, Ilham Tohti, was charged in September 2014. Dolkun Isa, whom India has denied a visa, leads a group that advocates democracy and human rights, but is wanted in China. In 2009, India had discouraged a visit by the top exiled Uighur leader, Rebiya Kadeer.

In Beijing’s official narrative, much of the Uighur terrorist violence is carried out by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, a group that seeks to establish an independent East Turkestan state in China. The US had once described the ETIM as “the most militant of the ethnic Uighur separatist groups” — even though its ability to carry out major terror acts remains unclear. The ETIM denies carrying out any terrorist attacks.


First published on: 26-04-2016 at 00:39 IST
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