A largely overlooked group in the past, the Uyghurs are starting to get themselves noticed. China is paying attention, and we should be too.
The newly formed National Security Commission of the Chinese Government has added Uyghur (also spelt Uighur) separatists to its list of ‘Five Poisons’. This ranks the issue, in importance to national security, alongside Taiwanese and Tibetan separatists, Falun Gong practitioners and democracy activists.
China’s tight control over media in the predominantly Uyghur-populated Xinjiang Region is part of the reason why media reports on the situation there are limited, but considering current speculation over their connection to MH370, as well as recent incidents of domestic terrorism in China, it’s likely the situation of the Uyghur people will gain increasing international attention. So who are the Uyghurs? And why do they matter to the present and future state of international affairs?
Uyghurs: Who are they?
Source: CC Commons Wikimedia
The Uyghurs are the largest ethnic Muslim group in China, with around ten million currently living there. They are considered moderate in their religious observance and are ethnically, culturally and linguistically more similar to their Central Asian neighbors than the Han Chinese. They mainly live in the northwest Xinjiang region, which since 1949 has been an autonomous region under Chinese rule. Much like Tibet there is a strong separatist sentiment among the population. They want political autonomy and territorial concessions, and China is not in the habit of giving out either of those things. Recent years have therefore seen mounting unrest in Xinjiang, including a major riot in July 2009 that caused almost 200 fatalities. The region today resembles a simmering pot of water on the precipice of boiling over.
Marginalisation of the Minority
The boiling point appears to have been reached; in October 2013 Beijing experienced its first terrorist attack in recent history when a car crashed into a crowd in Tiananmen Square killing five people and injuring 38 others. The Chinese Government was quick to blame Uyghur separatists (the car had Xinjiang number plates and the drivers were ethnic Uyghurs) and a month later, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) – a group on the USA’s Terrorist Exclusion List who advocate Xinjiang independence – claimed responsibility for the incident. For a country that spends more on domestic security than defence, China is rightly concerned.
In this context it is not surprising that when a group of eight knife-wielding men and women attacked passengers at the Kunming railway station leaving 29 dead and 140 injured in March this year, the Chinese Government suspected Uyghur involvement. While no group or individual has stepped forward to claim responsibility for this attack, the state-owned Xinhua News Agency immediately announced that the incident was carried out by ‘Xinjiang separatist terrorists’. Kunming Police also reported confiscating a hand-painted East Turkestan flag at the scene.
If Uyghur separatists are in fact behind the Kunming attack, this signals a violent escalation in their strategy. Philip Potter of the University of Michigan explains, “It’s a big escalation in part because it signals capability. Coordinating individuals the way that the railway attack appears to have been done is a lot harder than building bombs.” He explains that from an Uyghur perspective striking outside Xinjiang is the only “strategically sensible” way to get attention.
State media have gone as far as describing the Kunming attack as China’s 9/11. This may be a bit of a stretch, but as recent events have shifted both Chinese and international attention to the Xinjiang region, it is doubtful the Uyghurs will be out of the media spotlight for much longer.
Katherine Gordon completed her Bachelor’s degree in International Relations at the Australian National University in 2009, and recently completed her Masters degree through the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies. She now works for the Australian Public Service in Canberra. The views in this article are her own and do not reflect the views of the Government.