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Muslim 'separatists' protest as unrest spreads in China

         Tania Branigan in Beijing

         Wednesday April 2 2008

         Article history

About this article


This article was first published on on Wednesday April 02 2008. It was last updated at 19:03 on April 02 2008.

Muslim Uighurs have held anti-government protests in the far western region of Xinjiang, Chinese officials have acknowledged, blaming separatists inspired by the unrest in Tibet.

Demonstrators took to the streets at the weekly bazaar in Hotan on March 23, but news of the incident has only just emerged. China maintains tight controls on information from the area.

The local government issued a statement accusing "a tiny number of people" of creating an incident after the US government-funded Radio Free Asia reported that hundreds of people had been detained for protesting in the city and a nearby county.

Turkic-speaking Uighurs account for 8 million of the 19 million-strong population in the vast region, which covers an area more than three times the size of France. But the government has implemented tight controls on Uighur culture, particularly since riots broke out in 1997.

Radio Free Asia said the protests appeared to be sparked by a wealthy trader's death after two months in police custody.

Demonstrators had demanded the right for Uighur women to wear headscarves and the release of political prisoners.

An official with Hotan's government information office, Fu Chao, told the Associated Press news agency that several dozen people were taken into custody but most were later released.

"These people are splittists responding to the Tibetan riots," he added. "The core splittists are still under custody."

He said the government discouraged Uighur women from wearing scarves while they work because it was "inconvenient" but that the practice was otherwise accepted.

"Discontent is boiling, but we don't know how common these kinds of events are because there isn't much information from Xinjiang," said Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher at Human Rights Watch.

"I don't think it's connected to Tibet, but it's a reflection of the fact that current policies governing ethnic matters are not working," he said.

"Policies towards ethnic minorities are already so repressive and invasive and with the [Olympic] Games and instructions to the security apparatus to do an even better job, and ensure problems don't develop, it's hardening control," said Bequelin.

Human rights groups argue that the government has consistently exaggerated the threat of violence in Xinjiang to justify repressive measures against the Uighurs. They say that any expression of cultural identity is labelled as separatist and even terrorist.

But some analysts argue that the government's response reflects genuine - if overstated - fears of violence.

The East Turkestan [Xinjiang] Islamic Movement is listed as a terrorist organisation by the US and UN, but many experts believe its size and capabilities were exaggerated and have in any case dwindled since it was linked to violent attacks in the 90s. They disagree about the extent of its links to overseas groups, including al-Qaida, with many believing such connections historic and insubstantial.

Last month officials claimed to have foiled a Uighur terror plot targeting the Olympics - without offering any evidence - and an attempt to crash a commercial airliner. They said a Uighur woman had confessed to attempting to hijack a plane from Urumqi, the region's capital. A senior official also suggested foreigners were involved.

Uighur exiles have used the Tibetan unrest to highlight their own concerns. Rebiya Kadeer, the best known of the exile campaigners, wrote this week: "To Beijing, any Tibetan or Uighur who is unhappy with China's harsh rule is a 'separatist'. Uighurs are also labeled 'terrorists.'"

The German-based World Uyghur Congress has also called for a boycott of the Olympics opening ceremony.

"We agree that attention to Tibet is appropriate, but don't forget us Uighurs, otherwise before the Olympics, China could crack down harder," its spokesman Dilxat Raxit told Reuters.


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