Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Kyrgyz Exploit Uigur Minority

Kyrgyzstan is suppressing Uigur activities in the hope of winning concessions from China
By Igor Grebenshchikov

Against formidable odds, the Uigur Muslim people displaced from Eastern Turkestan by China some 50 years ago are clinging to hopes of a return to their homeland and escaping the inhospitable Central Asian republics where they now unwillingly live.


The Uigur diaspora dates back to the late 1940s when China got rid of Eastern Turkestan and absorbed it into the Xinjiang autonomous region. Tens of thousands of Uigur families then fled to Soviet Central Asia.


The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union led Uigurs to hope that their homeland might regain its independence. However, China not only remained stable but swiftly established diplomatic relations with all the newly independent Central Asian republics.


The Central Asian governments of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan found the Uigurs a useful tool in negotiations with Beijing.


In return for preventing them from stirring up trouble for China, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan sought to extract concessions from Beijing on other issues.


The Uigur case has not helped by disarray within its own ranks. Apart from the main Uigur society "Ittipak" (Unity), several other non-related Uigur organizations also operate in Kyrgyzstan.


Three of them have aspirations to be sole representatives of the Uigur diaspora. These are: Uigur Association of Kyrgyzstan, the Bishkek human rights organization "Democracy" and the Uigur information center "Erpan".


Fragmentation of the Uigur movement sprang partly from conflict of interests between the intelligentsia and entrepreneurs.


The former accused the latter of putting moneymaking ahead of national liberation. And the latter scoffed at the former for pursuing unrealistic goals which would not be supported by ordinary people.


So far all Uigur attempts to wield greater influence in Kyrgyzstan have failed. There are no Uigur representatives in parliament or other major institutions.


Analysts believe the community is being deliberately barred from positions of power for fear of alienating China.


Common religious and linguistic ties with the indigenous Kyrgyz population open few doors for the Uigurs. Their economic successes are limited to small cross-border businesses.


Integration between Uigurs and Kyrgyz is even rarer. Intermarriage is almost non-existent.


With large numbers of Russians now leaving Kyrgyzstan, experts think Uigurs could become the third largest national group in the counry after Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, with a resulting increase in their influence. Uigurs themselves are more doubtul.


To date, efforts by the Uigurs to mount anti-Chinese propaganda have been severely curbed. At the start of the 1990s, they tried to hold rallies in front of the Chinese embassy in Bishkek but this was soon banned.


The only outlet left for protests was in two small-circulation monthly Uigur publications, "Ittipak" and "Vijan Avazi" (Voice of Conscience), with circulations of 1,000 and 500 respectively.


The Chinese embassy tried to have these publications squashed but soon realised that hardly anyone was reading them.


The Kyrgyz authorities have branded the Uigurs as Muslim extremists, as they are far more religious than Kyrgyz and Kazaks.


The secret service has begun looking for a connection between Uigurs and the underground Islamic organization "Khizb-ut-Takhrir".


On March 12, 2001, Chinese citizens of Uigur origin were convicted of terrorist acts in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan. Bakhramjan Alimov and Askar Tokhti were sentenced to death, Ali Mansum was given a 25-year prison term.


The prosecution said they were members of an international terrorist organization which operates in Chechnya and Xinjiang.


Their objective, the prosecution said, was to provoke Kyrgyz-Uzbek clashes and to create instability in the regions of Kyrgyzstan bordering China. The defence counsel dismissed the charges as groundless.


The Uigur diaspora, meanwhile, accused the Chinese secret service of assassinating one of its former leaders, Nigmat Basakov. Kyrgyz police say Bazakov was killed by Uigur separatists from Xinjiang because he refused to give them money.


Another theory is that Bazakov died as a result of business rivalries between Uigurs.


By suppressing Uigur activities in Kyrgyzstan, President Akaev hopes to persuade China to soften its stand in territorial disputes along the river Chon-Uzengukuush and the Kyrgyz border settlements of Erkeshtam and Nuru.


So far this ploy has met with only limited success. But sources in the Kyrgyzstan foreign ministry still believe that the "Uigur issue" is a useful bargaining tool in dealings with China.


They may need it. Uigurs claim that China has even larger claims on territories deep inside Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.


Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor