China-Tibet 04-02

Unrest in Tibet, Islamic western China creates challenges for Beijing ahead of Olympics

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Associated Press Writer


BEIJING (AP) — New separatist unrest was reported Wednesday among a Muslim minority group in far western China, posing another headache for Beijing as it seeks to control fallout from earlier anti-government protests in Tibet.

The government has sought to dismiss the protests in Xinjiang as opportunistic, but observers have suggested that linking the two restive areas is a way to delegitimize grievances in both regions.

Disturbances were reported at a weekly Sunday bazaar in the city of Hotan, deep in the Uighur cultural heartland in far-western Xinjiang, according to a statement on a local government Web site.

The statement said a "tiny number of people" attempted to create an incident on March 23 "under the flag of separatism." Police responded and the incident was "handled according to the law," it said. The statement said no injuries occurred.

An official with Hotan’s government information office, Fu Chao, on Wednesday blamed the protest on Uighur separatists seizing on the Tibet unrest to generate publicity for their cause. Fu said several dozen people were taken into custody but most were later released.

"These people are splittists responding to the Tibetan riots," Fu said in a telephone interview. "The core splittists are still under custody."

The spread of protests to Xinjiang creates new problems for Beijing as it tries to contain demonstrations while fending off criticism of its treatment of minorities ahead of this summer’s Beijing Olympics.

Tibet supporters have been among the most vocal of a variety of groups seeking to use the Olympics to spotlight free speech restrictions, curbs on religion and alleged human rights violations.


The incident in Hotan came nine days after deadly rioting in Tibet’s capital, Lhasa, set off a wave of protests in Tibetan areas of western China. The incidents were the largest and most sustained anti-Chinese demonstrations in almost two decades.

In both cases, China has responded with harsh crackdowns, while refusing to discuss economic, ethnic and political grievances underpinning the protests. Security forces this year also claimed to have foiled a Uighur terror plot targeting the Olympics and an attempt to crash a commercial airliner.

On Tuesday, China accused supporters of Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, of seeking to step up agitation by preparing suicide squads to carry out attacks in Tibet.

The India-based Tibetan government-in-exile immediately denied the charge, saying it remained dedicated to the nonviolent struggle long promoted by the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace laureate.

The Ministry of Public Security also said searches of monasteries had turned up weapons caches, including 176 guns and 350 knives.

The ministry provided no details or evidence for its claims.

Andrew Fischer, a fellow at the London School of Economics who researches Chinese development policies in Tibetan areas of China, said Beijing has tried to change the "nonviolent, compassionate" image of Tibetans to draw parallels to the more violent pro-independence stance in Xinjiang.

"If they succeed in portraying them that way, then they can treat them the same way they treat Muslims in Xinjiang," he said.


Many Tibetans insist they were an independent nation before Communist troops invaded in 1950, while radical Islamic groups in Xinjiang have battled Chinese rule through a low-intensity campaign of bombings and assassination.

Uighurs, pronounced "Wee-gers," are a Central Asian people whose language, customs and religion are distinct from those of most Chinese.

Protests in Lhasa that began peacefully on the March 10 anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule spiraled out of control four days later. Chinese officials have put the death toll at 22, while Tibetan exiles say nearly 140 people were killed.

China also says sympathy protests that spread to surrounding provinces are part of an alleged campaign by the Dalai Lama to sabotage the Beijing Olympics and promote Tibetan independence.

The Dalai Lama has denied any links to the violence and urged an independent investigation into the unrest and its underlying causes — something China has repeatedly ruled out.

While Tibet and neighboring regions remain off-limits to most travelers, the region’s tourist authority has decided to allow Chinese tour groups to return on April 10 and foreign groups on May 1 — the start of a three-day national holiday — according to travel agents who received the announcement on Tuesday.

The reason for the delay in reporting the Hotan disturbance wasn’t clear, although China maintains tight control over all information flowing from Xinjiang.

U.S. government-funded Radio Free Asia and an overseas Uighur activist said several hundred Uighurs were detained after demonstrating in the city and a neighboring county on March 23-24.


They said demonstrators were demanding the right for Uighur women to wear headscarves and the release of political prisoners.

Fu, the Hotan official, said the government discourages Uighur women from wearing veils while they work because it was "inconvenient," but that the practice was otherwise accepted.

The government statement blamed the disturbance on people representing what China labels the "three forces" of terrorism, separatism and extremism.

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