When a businessman turned up wounded near spent bullets in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, the episode followed a pattern. Kyrgyz media reported that an ethnic Uighur in his late thirties had entered the hospital after being badly hurt at 10 p.m. on July 10. Less than two weeks earlier, on June 29, Chinese ambassador Wang Jianping, and his driver, Umar Nurmuhhamed, an ethnic Uighur who lives in Kyrgyzstan, were shot on June 29 in Bishkek. Kyrgyz media reported that two young men approached the car and shot the driver first, then his boss. Initial reports conclude that the killers were ethnic Uighurs from China’s semi-autonomous Xinjiang region seeking to separate from the rest of the country. Though later investigation challenges this conclusion, Uighur activists say that the violence seems likely to reinforce Chinese and Kyrgyz crackdowns on their activities throughout Central Asia.
These activists worry that anti-separatist sentiment will overwhelm public understanding of the case. "Obviously, Uighur organizations will be to blame again," said a representative of a Uighur movement in Kazakhstan. According to this person, the murder may have no political dimension. "We know that this Chinese diplomat ran his own business in Bishkek, that is why this murder probably is an ordinary criminal case," said the activist, who asked for anonymity. Kyrgyz investigators, meanwhile, seem unsure about the role of separatist terrorism in the murder. A Russian newspaper, Vremiya Novesti, quoted a source at Kyrgyzstan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs to the effect that the killers turned out to be ordinary criminals. By July 4, Reuters reported that local police had ascribed the killing to misguided activity between rival gangs.
But China, in depicting Wang as a martyr, seems inclined to stoke suspicion about the Uighur suspect, Yakub Erkin. Kyrgyz Interior Minister Bakirdin Subanbekov announced that Erkin went by several names and that his colleague had served time in Chinese prison for a murder that occurred when he was 12. Amid these confusing conclusions, the Chinese Foreign Ministry treated the crime as an opportunity to stoke anti-Uighur sentiment. The China Daily news agency quoted Kyrgyz interior ministry spokesman Omurbek Egemberdiyev as saying that his government "cannot rule out the theory that Uighur separatists were involved."
Chinese reports depicting Yang as a modest and hardworking person suffering from heart disease might serve to deflect Kyrgyz innuendo about Wang’s involvement in organized crime. Kyrgyz commentators have aired the possibility that members of the underground Organization for Liberation of Eastern Turkestan, a group seeking the separation of the semi-autonomous Xinjiang region from China, might have committed the murder.
This is a loaded speculation. Since March 2000, that group has reportedly killed two Chinese officials visiting Kyrgyzstan from Xinjiang and murdered Nigmat Bazakov, head of Bishkek’s Uighur community. In light of this record, Uighur activists in Central Asia mistrust reports about the group as much as the Chinese government claims to mistrust the group itself. "Many Uighur terrorist organizations are actually controlled by Beijing," claims Yusufbek Muhlisi, leader of an Almaty group called the Eastern Turkestan National Committee. "The special services of China act very dexterously. For example, they admit into their ranks Uighurs treated loyally by Beijing. And these Uighurs form small Uigur organizations in Xinjiang under the banner of struggle for independence of Xinjan." According to a Uighur expert who asked for anonymity, Chinese authorities then track and arrest Uighurs who subsequently join these new organizations.
Similar traps could occur in Kyrgyzstan, activists contend. Erkin Alptekin, a Uighur who chairs the general assembly of the Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization in The Hague, has said in recent weeks that only a referendum on Xinjiang’s status can meaningfully answer questions about the spread of Uighur terrorism. Alptekin- who some say plays a prominent role in coordinating worldwide support for Xinjiang separatists- called for a referendum on the region’s status. "The citizens of Xinjan only have to decide whether Xinjan should stay a part of China or it should gain independence," he said. "Uncoordinated groups behave very actively in Xinjan, and they are able to commit one-time actions against Chinese people. Special services of China cannot either control these organizations from without or incorporate their emissaries. That is why we cannot say these organizations are financed by foreign Uighurs."
Amid such confusion, activists expect that China, whatever the facts of Wang’s murder, will use this situation to put diplomatic pressure on Kyrgyzstan. These observers say that China wants Kyrgyzstan to concede various functions to Chinese authorities and discredit Uighurs throughout Central Asia. By pointing fingers at Uighur separatists, governments can raise the specter of a "Uighur problem", which can foster mistrust and intolerance toward Uighurs throughout Asia.
A solution to the Uighur problem, though, will have to address Xinjiang Uighurs’ living conditions. "Only 4% of acres in Xinjan are livable," says a Uighur expert. "Today the majority of Han people migrate from internal regions of China to Xinjian. This process takes a long period of time." Raising the notion of terrorism, Chinese officials may further delay a resolution in Xinjiang.
EurasiaNet, July 11, 2002