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Tensions rise between Uighurs and Chinese amid fears of new attacks

By Edward Barbour-Lacey

A vehicle from the Chinese police special tactical unit guards the sidewalk near the site of an attack near Beijing's Forbidden City last year. Pic: AP.

Tensions remain high in China following a spate of attacks linked to Muslim Uighur extremists, prompting Chinese authorities to increase security on the streets of capital Beijing.

The most recent suicide attack by suspected Uighur separatists occurred at a train station in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, and killed three people and injured 79 more.  The two bombers were also killed in the explosion.

This attack came at the tail end of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s four-day visit to Xinjiang province, home to the majority of the Uighur population.  President Xi had previously hoped that his trip would help to build a bridge between the majority Han population and the increasingly restive Uighurs.

Asides from the apparent objective of sending a clear message to President Xi Jinping and the Chinese government, the attack appears to have been timed to coincide with the arrival of a train carrying migrant workers, which arrived at the station shortly before the attack occurred.

These migrant workers are generally from China’s Han majority and their existence in the Uighur-dominated region has caused an unrest that has been simmering throughout the community for some time.  The influx of Han workers into the region has drastically changed the demographics of the area – once the majority, the Uighurs now make up less than half of the population in their province.

Chinese police have now identified one of the attackers as a 39-year-old Uighur man by the name of Sedirdin Sawut.  Sawut was from the town of Aksu, which is situated south of Urumqi. In the wake of the attack, Sawut’s family has been arrested and charged with being part of a larger criminal conspiracy influenced by radical Islam.

In an interesting break from previous police procedure, the Chinese authorities have released the images of two dead suspects and have appealed to the public for help in identifying the men.  There is apparently a US$15,500 reward for any information related to the as yet unidentified second attacker. It remains to be seen whether the Uighur community will give up these men’s identities.

A history of violence
More troublingly, this incident is the first suicide attack to take place in Xinjiang province. However, across the country, the level of violence as well as the sophistication and planning behind attacks such as these has been clearly increasing over the past years.

A number of patterns are beginning to emerge between the varied attacks that have taken place. There seems to be a clear intent to cause the maximum level of terror before the main attack occurs. The perpetrators of this new attack used knives to attack bystanders before detonating their explosive devices, a method used in previous attacks as well.

These attacks come on the back of the recent violence incident on the Vietnamese border with China, where a number of Chinese citizens, later identified as Uighurs, were killed in a struggle with Vietnamese border guards as they were being deported back to China.  See herefor an in-depth look at this recent violent episode.

Additional recent attacks include an attack by a carload of Uighurs in the area of Tiananmen Square, nearby the Forbidden City in Beijing. A further incident occurred in Kunming where over 140 people were injured and 29 were killed by knife-wielding attackers.

Harsh repercussions?
President Xi has publicly stated that the Chinese government must prepare itself for a long fight against the “separatist forces” that were centered in Xinjiang province.  There is a growing movement amongst the Uighur community for the creation of an independent state named East Turkestan.

The most recent attack will no doubt further set back relations between the Uighur population and the majority Han Chinese in the country. President Xi’s trip to Xinjiang was meant to symbolize the opportunity for greater integration into Chinese society for the Uighurs. However, after this attack there seems little doubt that another harsh crackdown by the government authorities will occur.

With an increasing occurrence of violent incidents, President Xi will find it harder and harder to walk the line between extending an olive branch to the Uighur population at large, and encouraging further integration, with the increasing calls to punish all those who do not submit to China’s rule of law.

In a recent press statement, it was revealed that during his trip to Xinjiang, President Xi spoke of a “strike-first” strategy that would seek to crush the terrorist threat once and for all.

It appears that this battle is far from over and there will be more bloodshed to come.

 Source: Asian Correspondent