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China discloses protest in Muslim region


International Herald Tribune




China discloses protest in Muslim region

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

SHANGHAI: Chinese officials said Wednesday they were grappling with ethnic unrest on a second front, in the northwestern region of Xinjiang, where Uighur Muslims protested Chinese rule late last month even as Tibetans rioted in the southwest.

One Uighur demonstration, which appears to have been quickly suppressed, took place in the town of Hotan on March 23, at the same time China was deploying thousands of security forces across a broad swath of its southwest to put down Tibetan unrest.

Officials said the protest had been staged by Islamic separatist groups seeking to foment a broader uprising in Xinjiang. China often blames any ethnic disturbances on what it calls splittists and terrorists. Human rights groups say that Chinese Uighurs, like Tibetans, have fought for greater freedom to practice their religion as well as more autonomy from Beijing.

The news of the protest in Xinjiang underscored the breadth of China's problems with ethnic and religious minority groups in the country's vast western regions, where there is a long history of unhappiness with Chinese rule. Ethnic groups that Beijing has sought to pacify with economic development programs and suppress with heavy police presence appear to be using the upcoming Olympic Games, to be held in Beijing, as an opportunity to press their grievances and attract international attention to their causes.

"A small number of elements tried to incite splittism, create disturbances in the market place and even trick the masses into an uprising," a statement published on the Web site of the Hotan government said in the first official acknowledgment of the disturbances.

Uighur residents of Hotan reached by telephone either claimed not to understand Chinese or refused to talk about recent events there. But Han residents said that as many as 500 Uighurs protested in the center of the city. Some reports have said the Uighurs were objecting to restrictions on wearing Islamic scarves and head coverings. Some interviewees, however, said the protesters were seeking independence. The demonstrators were quickly arrested by security forces who took control of the area.

Zhu Linxiu, a senior police official in Hotan, declined to comment in detail about the incident, saying it was "inappropriate to publicize." He refused to confirm the number of protesters or arrests, but said the demonstrators had been "instigated by bad elements."

Two weeks before the reported protest in Hotan, China announced the discovery of what it called a terrorist plot in Xinjiang, which it said involved the smuggling of combustible liquids onto a commercial airliner by a Uighur woman who had spent time in neighboring Pakistan.

Officials called the incident part of a terrorist campaign by a radical Islamic independence group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Uighur groups have denied the reports and called them part of an effort to justify heavily stepped-up security in the region and the suppression of dissent before the Olympics.

In recent days, Beijing has also accused supporters of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of plotting a suicide bombing campaign against China as part of a separatist campaign.

Like Tibetans in Tibet, Uighurs have historically been the predominant ethnic group in Xinjiang, which is officially known as the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. In both Tibet and Xinjiang, indigenous groups have chafed at the arrival of large numbers Han Chinese, the country's predominant ethnic groups, who have migrated to western regions with strong government support.

Uighurs, like Tibetans, have complained that recent Han arrivals now dominate their local economies, even as the Han-run local governments insert themselves deeper into schools and religious practices to weed out cultural practices that officials fear might reinforce a separate ethnic or religious identity.

In telephone interviews, Han residents of Hotan and nearby areas said there was a long history of distrust and tension between the Han and Uighur communities. Some Han migrants insisted the atmosphere remained volatile, and said that the Uighurs had been inspired by the recent Tibetan unrest.

"Some of jobless people here have heard about the situation Tibet, and they also want to make trouble," said Wang Guoliang, a Han grocery store owner in Hotan.

"They want independence and they want to expel the Han, whom they dislike. Most of the main cadres in the party, from counties and the cities to the provincial level are all Hans, while the local level officials are Uighurs."

Wang called the purging of Uighur officials several years ago after a bout of tension "the root of the protest."

Another Han, a clerk in a local bank who would only give his name as Chen, said there had been a long history of discontent in the region, and that people had been "on the lookout" since mid-March. At his bank, Chen said, there had been grumblings over the restrictions on Muslim headgear, which he disagreed with, saying, "It is their national custom and we should respect it."

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