China looks over borders for help in suppressing Uygurs

South China Morning Post
Friday, November 17, 2006

China's apparent snub to Canada on the sidelines of this weekend's Apec summit in Hanoi has been put down in the media to Ottawa's criticism of Beijing's handling of human rights. One of the sensitive issues in dialogue between the two sides has been Canada's efforts to free Huseyin Celil, a 37-year-old Uygur Canadian citizen who fled Xinjiang in the mid-1990s after being held in connection with his political activities in the autonomous region.

Recognised as a refugee by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, he was resettled in Canada in 2001, but was detained again in March while visiting relatives in Uzbekistan. He was later sent to Xinjiang, where the authorities reportedly sentenced him to 15 years in jail claiming he had ties to terrorism.

Xinjiang Uygurs' strong national identity and desire for independence have made them targets for detention by the Chinese government, which draws support from neighbouring states banking on the mainland's economic might in the region.

"The tightening of economic ties and trade relations between China and its [neighbouring] states, such as Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan ... is [allowing] Chinese influence in the region to grow," said Anu Kultalahti, China campaigner for Amnesty International.

Ms Kultalahti said regional security groupings - such as the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation, which includes Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and China - gave Beijing platforms to flex its muscle.

Indeed, at the organisation's meeting in September, China asked members to co-operate in cracking down on Muslim Uygurs' independence movement, and to repatriate terrorist suspects to China to face justice.

The different culture, religion and language of the 8 million Uygurs living in Xinjiang were also fuelling their desire to break away from communist rule, said Ms Kultalahti.

These Uygurs have always referred to the province as "Eastern Turkistan", not Xinjiang. Just over 7 million Han are living in the autonomous region, census figures for 2000 show.

Erkin Alptekin, president of the Munich-based World Uygur Congress that campaigns for the ethic group's rights, said Beijing was keen to suppress the Uygurs' political movement, believing any uprisings would be quickly helped by the 60 million Turkic people living in neighbouring countries.