China’s crackdown on jihad leaves Uyghurs running scared

Beijing has taken to accusing all would-be refugees of being terrorists
China’s crackdown on jihad leaves Uyghurs running scared

Asylum seekers thought to be from China's Uyghur minority sit before boarding trucks as Thai Immigration officials (not pictured) escort them to a court in Songkhla, southern Thailand on March 15, 2014 (AFP Photo/Tuwaedaniya Meringing)

 

ucanews.com reporter, Beijing
China
March 10, 2015
The central Turkish province of Kayseri lies more than 3,000 kilometers from China’s northwestern region Xinjiang. But for 500 Uyghurs resettled there in January, ethnically similar Turkey is the closest thing to home.

Others among this mostly Muslim minority have fared less well after fleeing escalating persecution in restive Xinjiang. Hundreds, maybe thousands, remain locked up in detention centers in Southeast Asia — or worse — back in China.

“It is unprecedented in the sense that never before were Uyghurs fleeing as whole families,” said Kayum Masimov, president of the Uyghur Canadian Society, following trips to visit Uyghur asylum-seekers in Thailand and Malaysia.

As China cracks down following frequent terrorist attacks at home and pressures governments to return Uyghurs abroad, this ethnic minority complains it is running out of places to go without fear of harassment.

Beijing maintains that the reasons for ramping up security are very real. On Friday, Guangzhou train station in southern China suffered its second knife attack in a year leaving 10 people injured.

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The identities of the attackers have not yet been made public but, as with other similar attacks, Uyghurs have come under strong suspicion.

On March 1, the southwestern city of Kunming marked the one-year anniversary of a bloody attack that left 33 people dead and 143 injured.

Overall, 2014 was the worst year on record in terms of Xinjiang-related violence with about 500 people reported killed.

Following an attack by Uyghur separatists at a market in Xinjiang’s provincial capital Urumqi that left 36 dead in May last year, the government launched a one-year “strike-hard campaign” recently extended until the end of 2015.

Defending China’s terrorism response on Sunday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the need for international cooperation to deal with “a common scourge to mankind”.

China’s claims that Xinjiang separatists are increasingly linking up with jihadist groups overseas are valid, security analysts say.

Islamic State (IS) propaganda films uploaded last year showed Chinese fighting alongside militants from the Middle East, and videos purportedly filmed in Xinjiang have shown masked figures calling for Uyghurs to join the global Jihad.

“I don’t think people have a specific number as for how many Chinese are fighting in Syria [and Iraq],” said Yun Sun, a Chinese foreign affairs analyst with the Stimson Center in Washington, DC. “Some estimates point to several hundred, but I have heard bigger numbers.”

For many would-be jihadists from China, the first stop is typically Pakistan or Afghanistan. Both countries share borders with southern Xinjiang where tensions have been most pronounced, particularly around the ‘Silk Road’ city of Kashgar.

Following last year’s attack on Kunming train station, the leader of the Xinjiang rebel Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) issued a call to arms from a hideout near Pakistan’s remote border with Afghanistan.

“China is not only our enemy, but is the enemy of all Muslims…. We have plans for many attacks in China,” he told Reuters in a rare phone interview.

As in Syria and Iraq, the number of Chinese militants operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan remains unknown, says Saifullah Mahsud, executive director of the FATA research center, an Islamabad-based think-tank that tracks Islamic militant groups. There is an enduring Uyghur presence in areas including North Waziristan, however.

Following an Islamist attack on Karachi’s Jinnah Airport in June, the Pakistan army launched Operation Zarb-e-Azb in tribal areas along the Afghan border targeting groups including the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, TIP’s armed wing.

“We have heard that perhaps 30 or 40 of them have been eliminated during the current operation,” Mahsud told ucanews.com.

Pakistan and China maintain close relations and have for years cooperated in fighting Islamic groups. In recent months, security has been stepped up due to escalating violence on both sides of the remote border that separates the two countries says Mahsud.

“But we’re talking about the Himalayas here, you know, so mountains thousands of feet high. How can you secure a border like that? It’s impossible,” he adds.

The geographic challenges have not stopped China from trying. In a bid to secure its long, remote borders that snake across the Himalayas, separating China further south from Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, Beijing set up a special security force in April last year.

Operating well into the interior of the country as far north as Henan province in the northeast, the Ministry of Public Security has paired with local police to prevent Chinese from crossing the border. The principle target has clearly been identified as Uyghurs.

Between April and the end of January, more than 800 people were captured trying to cross illegally into Vietnam, almost all of them Uyghurs trying to join terrorist cells overseas, according to Chinese state media.

On January 18, Chinese police shot dead two Uyghurs in Guangxi province at the Vietnamese border after they “violently resisted arrest”, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. A third Uyghur man escaped and was captured the following day.

National broadcaster CCTV screened images of the man, describing him as 175cm tall. Little else is known about him, including his current whereabouts.

In recent weeks, the state media has consistently painted the vast majority of fleeing Uyghurs as would-be jihadists.

In some cases, Beijing has reached out to Interpol to try to help track down and arrest alleged terrorists. The volume of such cases remains unknown. However, a spokesman said it is Interpol policy not to specify how many ‘red notices’ individual countries submit, referring back to Chinese authorities.

Clamping down on Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Beijing has in recent months closed hundreds of madrassas, banned burqas and barred under-18s from mosques — much stricter measures than those placed on other Muslims living further east in China.

In trying to contain Uyghurs from leaving China to mix with Muslims overseas, restrictions have extended to barring most Uyghurs from the annual Hajj to Mecca, notes Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project in Washington, DC.

“An ordinary Chinese can apply for his passport and receive it in two to four weeks,” says Seytoff. “It is almost impossible for an ordinary Uyghur to apply and get a passport in this way.”

Restrictions in Xinjiang are expected to get even tougher when Beijing passes a new anti-terrorism law in the coming weeks amid strong criticism from rights groups. Again, Beijing has been explicit that it specifically targets Uyghurs as the Communist Party tries to contain what it views as a low-level separatist insurgency.

Facing heavy restrictions on their faith and unable to leave, Uyghur Muslims have increasingly been pushed to try to flee Xinjiang by illegal means, argues Seytoff.

High numbers of Uyghur women and children have fled China in recent years. Picture taken in Urumqi, China, September 2014 (AFP Photo/Goh Chai Hin)

 

While Beijing has rarely deviated from the narrative that these people are would-be jihadists, Seytoff and Masimov point to the large numbers of Uyghur women and children who have fled China as evidence that the vast majority are innocents.

“It is difficult to comprehend how toddlers can possibly be joining various fighting groups in Syria but it is the only plausible excuse for the Chinese state to advance,” says Masimov.

Verifying which narrative is closer to the truth remains difficult.

Rising numbers of Uyghurs have fled to Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia in recent years where hundreds have been caught by police and put in detention centers, though exact figures are unknown.

The UN High Commission for Refugees doesn’t count numbers along ethnic or religious lines, while some Uyghurs claim to be Turkish in a bid to resettle there and many fail to claim asylum altogether, says Vivian Tan, UNHCR’s regional spokesman.

“It’s especially sensitive in the urban context as we’ve seen that publicity often results in increased harassment, sometimes even arrest and detention,” she added.

Although Turkey resettled some 500 Uyghurs in January after they spent a year in detention in Thailand, hundreds of others are reportedly being held in the south of the country and in Bangkok.

“The Thai government in the beginning thought of sending them back to China because the Chinese government and the Chinese ambassador requested they do so,” said Veerawit Tianchainan, executive director of the Thai Committee for Refugees Foundation in Bangkok.

But following US intervention and Turkey’s indication that it would receive Uyghurs, China began to soften its position, he said.

“So what Thailand has done is just keep them in detention and then let the two superpowers fight this problem out themselves,” said Veerawit, who met with senior Thai government officials at the end of last month to discuss the situation facing the Uyghurs.

Turkey has in recent years offered a rare haven for Uyghurs while other countries have been scared off by diplomatic pressure from Beijing. Although they share Turkic ethnicity with Uyghurs, still some Turks are opposed to receiving them.

While many Turks appear to support receiving a group they consider brothers, others have argued that Turkey has already become strained after receiving millions of refugees fleeing fighting in Syria and other hotspots in the Middle East.

Meanwhile, ties between Ankara and Beijing have become strained.

The Communist Party was livid after Chinese authorities arrested 10 Turks and nine Uyghurs in January for trying to leave China with forged passports.

“The Turkish authorities’ shilly-shallying over the East Turkestan Movement has made their country a favored stopover for Uyghur militants from Xinjiang on their way to terrorist camps in other countries,” read an editorial in the state-run China Daily a few days later.

Although the Turkish government is understood to have been reticent at first in the face of Chinese pressure, so too has Thailand; but both are now expected to arrange for more Uyghurs to leave Bangkok soon, Veerawit told ucanews.com on Monday.

Like the 500 Uyghurs who reached Turkey in January, another group of an unknown number is expected to be among a lucky minority to flee Xinjiang and make it to a third country in safety, albeit after months in detention in Thailand.

Masimov, who himself was an asylum-seeker to Canada, says that Beijing needs to stop deliberately confusing ordinary people with groups determined to cause violence in the name of Islam if Uyghurs are to ever gain better treatment at home and abroad.

“Nowadays we are called ‘religious extremists’, ‘terrorists’ and ‘Islamists’,” he says. “We’ve grown accustomed to labeling by the Chinese state which blames everyone else but themselves.”

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