Uighur problem

Uighurs are waging a war of different kind to which many Chinese politicians and strategists are unknown but Beijing’s strategy to apply a carrot and stick policy may give instant result but it might lose out in the future once the steam is over.

Chinese military and security thinkers are quite unfamiliar with the problem in Xinjiang in a manner that Uighurs have already started their preparations for a long haul and dipper engagement with the Chinese state to seek a final separation from Chinese mainland.     

While China adopts its tested strategy in Tibet in the fifties to deal with Xinjiang uprising, Uighurs are getting battle hardened and ready to fight through an armed struggle like the Mongols were doing in the 14th century.

Already 450 Uighurs have entered China after arriving from Yemen and their association with the ISIS can now be visible through their action against Chinese forces. This could spring a surprise since these are already battle hardened in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

The issue of Uighur problem got highlighted due to deportation of hundreds of suspected militants in Thailand. Recently, Thailand and Turkey faced an unprecedented situation after Thailand deported some Uighurs to China who had planned to go to Syria and Iraq to carry out jihad and were in constant touch with ISIS commanders.

Although Turkey is supporting Uighurs on a nationalistic fervor but Uighurs have changed their strategy against China after Beijing launched massive military campaign against them.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Uighurs keen to escape unrest in China’s western Xinjiang region have travelled clandestinely via Southeast Asia to Turkey. China is home to about 20 million Muslims spread across its vast territory, only a portion of whom are Uighurs, who speak a Turkic language and are from Xinjiang.

Making the matter worse, a senior Chinese police officer said recently that some of the Uighurs who reached Turkey were being sold to fight for groups, such as Islamic State, as cannon fodder.

However, Beijing denies accusations by human rights groups that it restricts the Uighurs’ religious freedoms. It blames Islamist militants for violent attacks in Xinjiang in the past three years in which hundreds have died. China has also denied allegations of mistreatment or torture.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the Turkish government and major international human rights organizations are also among the parties that have deplored Thailand’s move.

Unusually harsh phrases like “despicable act” and “flagrant violation of international law” have been used.

Along with Thai human rights activists, a Thai Muslim groups have issued a statement demanding an explanation from the junta on why the Uighurs, who are Turkic-speaking Muslims, were deported. Thailand has a small minority of Muslims.

Due to religious and cultural affinities, Turkey in June accepted for resettlement of 172 Uighur refugees from Thailand.

Bringing instability

The Turkish government and its people, who consider Uighurs kinsmen, were outraged upon hearing the news. Last month, an angry mob vandalized Thailand’s honorary consulate in Istanbul. As a result, the Thai government temporarily closed its embassy and consulate in Turkey.

There is a long history about the uprising in Xinjiang and how China has mishandled the situation time and again.  

In last seven years from 2008, there are more than 400 incidents in which Uighur separatists and Chinese security forces have exchanged gun battles leading up to more than 1200 killings.

In January 2007 Chinese military had raided a training camp in Xinjiang which killed 18 terrorist suspects and one policeman.

Seventeen more suspects were reported captured and explosives were seized. The raid was said to have provided new evidence of ties to international terrorist forces.

The raid marked the latest clash between Uighur Muslim separatists and Chinese security services, reflecting a limited challenge to China’s mainland stability.

In Beijing’s view, however, instability in Xinjiang could also bring instability to Tibet, Inner Mongolia, and Taiwan.

Like many of these disputes throughout Asia, the root causes of the problem are a complex mix of history, ethnicity, and religion, fueled by poverty, unemployment, social disparities, and political grievances.

The Chinese central government has gone through several waves regarding the treatment of religion and ethnicity within the territory of the People’s Republic of China.

Historically, ethnic minorities that are adherents to religions other than Chinese Buddhism raised fears of social unrest in China.

For instance in the nineteenth century, the Taiping Rebellion-including the Hakka subgroup and Zhuang minorities-and the Hui Minorities War, both had their roots in religious movements.

The Hui, ethnically Chinese but religiously Muslim, are a unique minority in China. The ethnic minorities and Muslim majority in Xinjiang, which means the “New Territories” in Chinese, were largely conquered and integrated into the Chinese state in the 1750s. Xinjiang became a province in 1884, fixing a firm western border with Russia.

After the dissolution of the Qing Dynasty, the last Chinese dynasty, the Republic of China’s Nationalists gradually saw the country fall into Japanese occupied territories and warlord fiefdoms, including Xinjiang, which was ruled by an autonomous military governor who nervously sought aid and sponsorship first from Soviet Russia and then from the Nationalists, before ultimately surrendering to the Communists in Xinjiang in September 1949.

In addition to police and military crackdowns, Beijing believes that economic development can undermine Uighur calls for independence and solve Xinjiang’s problems. And economically, Xinjiang has dramatically improved relative to its economy of a decade ago, although it still lags behind the industrialized coastal areas.

Economic incentives

However, the very improvements attributed to economic enhancement open China to risk in Xinjiang. For example, as part of its development plans, Beijing is connecting Xinjiang to Central Asia through roads, rails and pipelines to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

But these very openings are exposing Xinjiang directly to Islamic militant training and arms as well as the drug trade emanating from these countries and beyond.

The central government’s policies on separatists include the use of force, certainly evident in Xinjiang, For example, in August 2001, the Chinese military undertook large-scale exercises in Xinjiang with an imposing parade of military hardware through the center of the city of Kashgar.

The Xinjiang exercises, which were spread over almost a month, reportedly involved 50,000 troops, one of the largest ever staged by the Chinese in the region, featuring dozens of armored personnel vehicles, tanks, and camouflaged trucks filled with troops, capped off by a flyover of fighter jets.

Economic incentives, however, may well be the largest tool in the central government’s policies toward Xinjiang and the Uighurs, especially the Western Development policies.

The western regions, over half of China’s vast expanse of land with its highlands and deserts, are made up of six provinces and three autonomous regions, including Xinjiang.

The Western Development policies were first an economic development strategy to reduce poverty and then an urgent social necessity of Chinese leaders.

In the early 1980s, then-leader Deng Xiaoping developed a policy to first develop the eastern coastal regions, which already had a better economic foundation than the western regions, and then second to increase the development of the western regions after the development of the eastern regions reached a certain point.

China’s official statement on “East Turkestan terrorists” published in 2012 listed several groups allegedly responsible for violence, including the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), the East Turkistan Liberation Organization (ETLO), the Islamic Reformist Party ‘Shock Brigade’, the East Turkestan Islamic Party, the East Turkestan Opposition Party, the East Turkestan Islamic Party of Allah, the Uighur Liberation Organization, the Islamic Holy Warriors and the East Turkestan International Committee.

There is not always clarity in the way these groups are officially labeled nor do these groups seem to stay static.

For instance, in 1997, the Uyghurstan Liberation Front and the United National Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (UNRF) overcame their differences and joined together in a jihad in Xinjiang.

The UNRF fears Uighurs who agree with China, and announced that it had assassinated an imam of the mosque in Kashgar in 1996 because of his pro-China views. When China destroyed an Islamist camp in Xinjiang in January 2007, killing 18 suspected terrorists and capturing 17 others, a police spokeswoman, said the training camp was run by ETIM.

Pakistan, both a neighbor and friend of China, has taken a more stringent line towards Uighurs, closer to the policies of most Central Asian neighbors.

China and Pakistan agreed to enter into an extradition treaty to facilitate the exchange of prisoners in 2003.

Ismail Kadir, reported to be the third highest leader of ETIM, was returned to China in March 2002 following his capture by Pakistani authorities reportedly in either Kashmir or in the city of Rawalpindi, northern Pakistan, home to a sizeable community of Uighurs.

Ismail Semed, allegedly another Uyghur ETIM founder, was executed in Urumqi after being deported from Pakistan where he had fled after serving two jail terms for alleged involvement in the violent Baren uprising in 1990.

Semed was convicted in October 2005 of “attempting to split the motherland” and the possession of firearms and explosives.

And Pakistani troops reportedly killed Hasan Mahsum, yet another ETIM leader, in the South Waziristan region of Pakistan in  October 2003.

Former Pakistan President Musharraf stated during his November 2003 visit to Beijing that “his country will never allow anybody, including the terrorist force of ‘East Turkestan’, to use the territory of Pakistan to carry out any form of anti-China activities.”

Thousands of Uighurs reportedly travel to and from Pakistan for business and religious purposes, particularly to study in Pakistan’s madrassas.

China believes that more than 1,000 Uighurs were trained by bin Laden’s forces in Afghanistan, with approximately 110 returning to China, about 300 allegedly captured or killed by US forces, and about 600 escaping to northern Pakistan.

In addition, some reports suggest that Uighurs have been trained in unofficial Pakistan militant training camps.

Growing presence

This combination of ethnicity and religion also involves the Uighur population resident in Central Asia who are associated with the movement of religious and political ideologies, weapons, and individuals.

Uighurs are often viewed with a great deal of leeriness in Central Asia. Uighur separatists within Xinjiang drew inspiration and envy from their Central Asian neighbors’ independence after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and they increased their movement toward a separate Uighur state.

Militant Uighur groups exploited Xinjiang’s porous border with Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Afghanistan to establish training camps outside of China’s reach as well as to move explosives and small arms into China.

Additionally, it is much easier for citizens of surrounding countries to serendipitously travel into China.

The very rapid growth of economic relations and connecting infrastructure between China and Central Asian countries has also enabled the enhanced movement of ideas, weapons and people.

There are roughly a half million Uighurs in Central Asia.  Most of the Central Asian governments, notably Kyrgyzstan, have made several attempts to crack down on Uighurs whom they view as undesirable or militant.

There is a tendency to view Uighurs with suspicion-they are frequently unemployed and thus seen as thieves and troublemakers as well as harboring discontent toward their host governments.

Uighurs in Central Asian countries often join hands with other dissident groups, united by the global Islamic resurgence.

For instance, Uzbek leaders believe that ethnic Uighurs from Central Asia and China are members of the terrorist organization known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).

Since 2005, there has been a wave of “election-related turmoil” or so-called “Color Revolutions” in Central Asia, with terrorist and extremist forces often funded from outside and uniting religious extremists with political dissidents against authoritarian governments.

Afghanistan has witnessed the resurgence of Taliban and Al Qaeda and now ISIS in the wake of a new wave of terrorist attacks following the Iraq War and Syria War.

The future that most worries the Chinese is that the Uighur Muslim movement in Xinjiang will, on the one hand, externally hook up with international Muslim movements throughout Asia and the Middle East, bringing with it an influx of Islamic extremism and a desire to challenge the Chinese central government.

On the other hand, the Chinese fear the Uighur movement could internally radicalize other minorities, whether it was the ethnic Tibetans or the Muslim Hui.

While Beijing is currently successfully managing the separatist movements in China, the possibility of increased difficulty is linked partly to elements outside of Chinese control, such as political instability or increased Islamic extremism in neighboring Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan.

Partly, however, the progress of separatist movements in China will be determined by the Chinese themselves in policies and reactions.

If “strike hard” campaigns do or are seen to discriminate against nonviolent Uighurs and if the perception that economic development in Xinjiang aids Han Chinese at the expense of Uighurs, the separatist movements will be further fueled.

The region as a whole has concerns about growing Uighur violence. Central Asian countries, especially those with sizable Uighur minorities, already worry about Uighur violence and agitation.  

Many of the regional governments, especially authoritarian secular governments, in South Asia and Central Asia are worried about the contagion of increasing Muslim radicalization.  

The governments of South-East Asia are also worried about growing radical networks and training camps, but they also fear the very idea of a fragmenting China.

Not only is China economically important to the region, but also political instability in China would impact all of Asia.

But Uighurs are all set to launch their armed campaign against the Chinese state after it was noticed that Beijing’s bitter medicine strategy is only becoming counterproductive to some of the battle hardened Uighurs who have now secured support from groups operating in MENA region.