By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 3, 2008
BEIJING, April 2 -- Protests by ethnic Uighurs broke out in a remote city of China's far western Xinjiang region even as authorities were suppressing unrest in nearby Tibet and other Tibetan-inhabited areas, according to reports from the region Wednesday.
The demonstrations -- in and near Hotan, an oasis on the edge of the Taklimakan Desert 625 miles southwest of the Xinjiang capital of Urumqi -- erupted March 23-24 after a prominent jade trader died in police custody, according to a report from the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia that cited Uighur exiles.
The protests had no direct connection to the uprising that began in Tibet with protests March 10 but added to an impression of discontent among China's minority peoples as the government prepares to host the Beijing Olympics in August. The protests were not reported in China's censored news media.
Like the Tibetans, Xinjiang's approximately 16 million Uighur Muslims speak their own language, have their own customs and, at one point in history, set up their own government. They have long chafed under the Han Chinese-dominated government in Beijing and in the 1990s mounted a series of attacks against Chinese officials and institutions during which Beijing says more than 150 people died.
More recently, the Public Security Bureau has accused Uighur separatist groups of planning terrorist attacks to disrupt the Olympics. Authorities last month said a Uighur woman plotted to blow up an airliner using material in a soft-drink can but was thwarted by quick-witted crew members. Since then, the government has tightened restrictions on liquids carried by airline passengers.
The United States has designated some Uighur separatist movements as terrorist organizations and declared that one of them, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has links to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Foreign-based activists have denied the connection and insisted they are fighting a legitimate nationalist struggle to protect the rights of Uighur Muslims against Han Chinese domination.
The protesters in Hotan, numbering up to 600, were demanding that authorities abandon a proposed ban on head scarves, grant greater autonomy to Uighur-populated regions and release what the Uighur exiles called political prisoners, the Radio Free Asia report said. It added that several hundred people were rounded up after the protests.
Authorities in Hotan announced Wednesday that a small number of people acting "under the flag of separatism" sought to precipitate unrest among Uighurs in Hotan's central market after hearing of the rioting in Tibet. "With the people's help, the police stopped them," the statement added.
The city has since returned to normal conditions, it said, adding that those taken into custody will be judged according to law. It did not specify how many were arrested.