Uighur community leaders in Central Asia have reacted with fury to the deadly riots in their ancestral Xinjiang region of China, even as governments in the former Soviet states refuse to interfere.
Many in the half-million-strong Uighur community in Central Asia allege that the unrest is a consequence of decades of repression by Beijing of Uighurs in Xinjiang, a Chinese region that borders both Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan.
Their anger is predictable given that the Uighur population living in Central Asia is descended from refugees who fled China in the 1930s and 1940s after two failed attempts in those decades to form an independent Uighur state.
“The Uighurs wanted to protest peacefully against the authorities’ policies towards them. But because of the police it ended in tragedy,” said Torgan Tozakhunov, deputy director of the Uighur cultural center in Kazakhstan.
“These events are a violation of human rights. A true genocide of the Uighur people is in progress and the Chinese authorities will have to answer for these crimes in front of the international community,” he said.
Kazakhstan is home to 220,000 Uighurs, the biggest such community in Central Asia, with the rest of the population spread amongst the other mostly Turkic ex-Soviet republics of the region.
“The Chinese authorities provoked the troubles in Xinjiang because the World Uighur Congress is growing in influence and China wants to present it as a terrorist group,” said Rakhimdzhan Khapisov of the Ittipak group in Kyrgyzstan, home to 50,000 Uighurs.
China accuses the World Uighur Congress — led by US-based exile Rebiya Kadeer — of fomenting the riots from abroad although diaspora leaders claim that the unrest broke out when police fired on demonstrators.
In one of the worst spikes in ethnic tensions to have hit China in decades, 156 people died in the unrest on Sunday in Urumqi, the Xinjiang regional capital, China’s official Xinhua news agency said.
Now, even with Beijing pouring troops into Urumqi in an attempt to stabilize the situation, fresh violence has still flared as Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs arm themselves with makeshift weapons.
Despite the anger amongst the Uighur diaspora, governments in Central Asia have kept a guarded silence over the events, with the growing importance of trade ties with Beijing foremost in their minds.
This is despite the fact that Uighurs are well integrated into society, especially in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Kazakhstan Prime Minister Karim Massimov is himself an ethnic Uighur.
The countries’ former Soviet-era master Moscow issued its first reaction on Wednesday, three days after the rioting began, in a statement demonstrating a reluctance to interfere.
“The events there are an exclusively internal matter for the People’s Republic of China,” the Russian foreign ministry said.