Uyghur Militants are Fighting in Syria, China Claims
Clashes in recent months have killed at least 56 people in Xinjiang, a region that has long been home to a simmering rebellion against Chinese rule among parts of the Muslim Uyghur population.
China’s state media claims some Uyghurs are being trained in Syria and blames the violence on “terrorism, extremism and separatism”.
According to a report in Radio Free Asia, Chinese government decided to beef up security following a meeting of the ruling Chinese Communist Party chaired by President Xi Jinping, indicating concerns among the top leadership over the rising violence in Xinjiang ahead of the anniversary of riots in the Xinjiang capital Urumqi which left nearly 200 dead in 2009.
Beijing staged massive military exercises in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and dispatched officials in June, in an apparent bid to restore order in the far western region.
Few days before the military exercise, Chinese police fired at minority ethnic Muslim Uyghurs protesting the arrest of a young religious leader and closure of a mosque. Up to 15 people may have been killed and 50 others injured in the incident, at least 200 protesters were arrested.
An expert on China and Central Asia at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank, Raffaello Pantucci says “Syria is an extraordinary magnet for international jihadists and international extremists. There are Uyghurs who are probably radicalized going into the battlefield in Syria is not entirely surprising. But whether this is an organized thing from the East Turkistan movement or its elements, it’s difficult to know.”
Turkey, which borders Syria, has a sizable Uyghur diaspora, mostly exiles disgruntled with Beijing.
Head of terrorism research center in Singapore, Rohan Gunaratna, claims the unrest in Xinjiang is largely fueled by tensions and anger over Beijing’s policies in the region, rather than being driven purely by religious extremism.
Gunaratna adds, “The political environment itself has deteriorated and China has to address this not only as a pure terrorism issue but more as an inter-ethnic, inter-religious issue.”
In April of this year, a report from the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP) detailed the repression of religious freedoms among Uyghurs in the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Director Alim Seytoff states, “State persecution of Uyghur religious practice in China has increased tremendously in recent years, and this report illustrates how Uyghurs’ fundamental right to freedom of religion is denied by Chinese authorities.”