Uighurs struggle in a world reshaped by Chinese influx
In China's far west, the Muslim ethnic group finds itself relegated to menial jobs. Chinese officials also restrict religious practice and use of their language in schools.
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ETIM, a shadowy group that advocates an independent Islamic state for Uighurs, is seen by the Chinese authorities as the principal security danger in the region. Accused of a failed bomb plot on a Chinese airliner last month, the organization "is the preeminent threat to the Beijing Olympics," says Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.Skip to next paragraph
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That threat, however, says Mr. Gunaratna, comes not from "ETIM's support network in Xinjiang, but from an operational network" based abroad, along the Pakistan-Afghan border, comprising about 40 men who have linked up with Al Qaeda allies there.
Of more concern to the cotton farmer, who asked that neither his name nor his village be identified for fear of official retribution for talking to a foreign journalist, is the fact that the government has ordered him, like everyone else in the district, to tear down his home and build a new one more resistant to earthquakes.
The authorities are offering 4,000 RMB ($571) towards the cost of this work, the farmer says, "but rebuilding the house I live in would cost me 30,000 RMB." Instead he plans to build a smaller home, which will still cost him the price of a year's cotton harvest. "What can we do?" he asks. "That's just the way it is."
Some Uighurs have broken the silence of acquiescence recently, such as the several thousand demonstrators in the southern town of Khotan who spilled onto the streets in protest a month ago at the death, at age 38, of an imprisoned local philanthropist. The official reason was a heart attack.
But fear of being branded a separatist hangs heavily over most Uighurs. Asked if he is happy with the way the government treats him, one man says that answering that question would make him choose between "committing a political sin or a sin against my conscience." He chooses the latter, and is silent.
A local government employee in the small city of Korla, where the discovery of oil has drawn hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese workers, is a little more forthcoming.
Since last term, he complains, key school subjects such as math have been taught only in Mandarin, starting in the second grade. To preserve his people's culture, he insists, "education is central. If education is in Mandarin, what do you think will happen?"
Meanwhile, back in his government-refurbished palace that has been transformed into a "Triple- A Tourist Spot," according to a plaque by the gate, King Daoud seems resigned to his role as a folkloric money spinner for Xinjiang's real rulers, with whom he long ago made his peace.
His "kingdom has disappeared" since the Communists deposed him in 1949, he acknowledges. "I am the last vestige of the feudal system."
Soon, fears Batur, his people will go the same way if the Chinese government maintains its current policies.
"The government thinks Uighurs are a threat to Xinjiang's stability," he says. "If they can assimilate us as soon as possible, there will be no threat. Xinjiang will be Chinese, and there will be nothing for them to worry about."
On China's frontier: Uighurs
Uighurs (pronounced WEE-gurs) are the largest Turkic ethnic group in China's vast far-western Xinjiang region.
The Red Army first moved into Xinjiang in the late 1940s, and China began occupying the region in 1955.
Uighurs speak a Turkic dialect and write in Arabic script. Uighurs, who have Caucasian features, once made up 90 percent of the region's population, but Han Chinese immigration has seriously eroded that.
Sporadic protests have broken out in the region, with violent separatist attacks throughout the 1980s and in 1997.
Ethnic nationalism and religious solidarity have renewed ties among Muslims across the former Soviet Union and Middle East, prompting Beijing's sensitivity to separatist influences from central Asia.
Chinese authorities recently blamed Uighur separatists for a series of terrorist conspiracies, which they denied.
Source: Associated Press, The Christian Science Monitor, Reuters. Compiled by Peter Smith