Deadly clashes this week in China’s western province Xinjiang that killed 21 people have again drawn attention to the long-running tensions between the predominantly Muslim Uighur community and the Han Chinese majority.
Officials say Tuesday’s incident began in a rural town near Kashgar, when a group of social workers and police visited a home allegedly occupied by a gang of thugs. After authorities found weapons stashed inside, they say the home’s occupants set their house on fire and attacked.
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Chinese officials called the incident a premeditated terrorist act. State media outlets portrayed the assailants as separatist extremists.
But Ilham Tohti, a Uighur scholar at the Beijing-based Minzu University, is doubtful of the official version, calling it unlikely that a group of terrorists would hide together in their own home.
Xinjiang authorities have had a very poor record in similar situations, with limited information provided about what really happened, Tohti said.
U.S. officials called for a transparent investigation and expressed concern about reports of discrimination of Uighurs and other Muslims in China.
Uighur rights groups in exile say the incident is more likely related to the struggle of the nine-million-strong Uighur minority in Xinjiang against a regime they deem oppressive.
In recent decades the region has seen an influx of Han Chinese, brought to the resource-rich province by a central government scheme that encourages investment and development.
Resentment over economic discrimination and cultural repression peaked in 2009 when violent riots in Xinjiang's capital Urumqi left 200 people dead and triggered an increase in security forces and surveillance. Since then, there have been only sporadic episodes of violence.
According to Tohti, although many Uighurs in Xinjiang do not dare protest against Chinese rule out of fear, the majority of them chafe at the policies of local authorities.
This silence does not mean that they agree with local authorities, he said, adding that now many are speaking out.
Linking al-Qaida affiliates
Although no group has formally been accused for Tuesday's attack, previous incidents in the region have been ascribed to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, an al-Qaida affiliated group accused of fomenting separatist actions among Uighur communities in Central Asia.
Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, believes that the latest incident in Xinjiang was in fact an act of terrorism and said the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and al-Qaida have worked together against China in the past.
They already attempted a number of attacks during the Beijing Olympics, he said. Since then they have been recruiting and training a very small, but significant, number of Uighurs on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.
In March, China sentenced 20 men on charges of terrorism and inciting secession in Xinjiang. According to the court, some of the men had plotted to kill local policemen, and had been distributing propaganda material related to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement.
Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, said there is almost no tangible evidence that the East Turkestan Islamic Movement and al-Qaida are working together to strike China.
Pantucci said although some Uighur organizations exist in Pakistan's tribal areas, China has been effective in preventing them from crossing over to neighboring Xinjiang. Pantucci added those who are launching attacks appear to be more domestically radicalized.