The Central Asian governments have tried to stay out of Beijing’s ruthless campaign against Uyghurs and other minorities in China’s western region of Xinjiang, officially known as the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.
But not getting involved in that situation has proven impossible for Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan and likely will continue to be.
The area China now calls Xinjiang and the countries on the other side of the Tien-Shan Mountains known as Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have been linked for millennia by trade and culture.
Significant events cannot happen in one without it affecting the other.
This was clear again in the first years after the Soviet Union collapsed in late 1991 and the five Central Asian republics became independent countries.
On July 29, 1992, the Russian daily Nezavisimaya gazeta reported about a meeting of the For a Free Uyghuristan party in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek.
There were some 270 delegates there, most from Kyrgyzstan but also some from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkey.
The party’s goal was to establish an independent state of Uyghuristan on the territory of Xinjiang Province, but they vowed that they intended to do so exclusively within the norms of international law, though they were sparse on details about what they considered those “norms” to be.
At that time, it had been barely six months since China had established diplomatic relations with the Central Asian countries. Moreover, the Soviet Union had portrayed China as an enemy for more than 20 years, and the Central Asians did not recall their relations with China during the hundreds of years prior to the arrival of the Russians with much fondness.
There were at that time about a quarter-million Uyghurs living in Kazakhstan and some 50,000 more in Kyrgyzstan.
The For a Free Uyghuristan party was not the only Uyghur organization active in Kyrgyzstan. There was also Ittipak (Union) and the Uyghur Association of Kyrgyzstan.
In Kazakhstan, there was the Association of Uyghurs based in Almaty along with other Uyghur groups.
These groups regularly demonstrated and called press conferences in Bishkek and Almaty when there were problems and the mistreatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang by Chinese officials.
In July 1996, Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan reported fighting between Chinese security forces and a group called the United Revolutionary Front of East Turkestan (URFET), an Uyghur separatist group that claimed it killed some 450 Chinese troops and security forces during those clashes.
The leader of URFET, Yusupbek Mukhlisi, had lived in Almaty since fleeing there in 1960.
In February 1997, Chinese troops opened fire on Uyghur protesters in the city of Ghulja (Yining in Chinese) who were demonstrating against the execution of 30 Uyghur activists who had called for independence from China.
Officially, nine Uyghurs were killed but some activists say the number of dead was more than 100. That spurred protests outside the Chinese embassies in Bishkek and Almaty in March 1997.
On March 25, 1997, Beksultan Sarsekov, who was then the secretary of Kazakhstan’s Security Council, said at a press conference in Almaty that “we are concerned by events” and by the “harsh measures” used by the Chinese government against the Uyghurs.
But Sarsekov added that under an agreement signed between Kazakhstan and China in 1996, the two sides promised not to help separatist movements in the other country and therefore the problems in Xinjiang were not the business of Kazakhstan.
It is worth remembering that at the time, the Kazakh government had its own worries about Cossack separatists in northern parts of the country near the Russian border.
The agreement Sarsekov referred to were actually the border treaties signed in April 1996 in Shanghai between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and China that replaced the previous Soviet-Sino border treaty. The group called itself the Shanghai Five and would later become the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Uyghur groups in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan reported that following the signing of that agreement, China started a wave of arrests in Xinjiang.
Authorities in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan were bound by the border treaties not to help Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang, but they did little to stop Uyghur protests against China in their own countries.
Small groups of Uyghurs continued to protest outside the Chinese Embassy in Almaty, in April and July 1997. In January 1998, the opposition Azat movement and Azamat party held a press conference to condemn the execution of 13 more Uyghur activists in December 1997.
In early November 1999, dozens of Uyghurs rallied outside Uzbekistan’s embassy in Almaty, calling for Uzbek President Islam Karimov to raise the issue of the plight of Uyghurs during an upcoming visit to China.
The Problem Crosses The Border
The problems in Xinjiang inevitably spilled over into Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
In September 2000, two policemen were killed and four wounded in an attack in Almaty. Four suspects were killed shortly after and then-Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev — now the president — said the four were Uyghurs from China. The Chinese Embassy in Kazakhstan expressed its full support for the operation that led to the killing of the Uyghurs.
Kazakhstan had already begun sending Uyghurs back to China by that time despite international criticism.
Kyrgyzstan also became an extension of the conflict in Xinjiang. In March 2000, the leader of Ittipak, Nigmatulla Bazakov, was shot dead outside his home in Bishkek. One Uyghur community leader had already been killed in 1998 and another was killed in 2001.
In May 2000, a member of an official delegation from Xinjiang was gunned down and two other delegation members wounded outside the Dostuk Hotel in Bishkek, about the same time that a fire broke out at a Bishkek wholesale market where the majority of merchants came from Xinjiang.
In late June 2002, a senior Chinese diplomat was shot dead in Bishkek.
On March 27, 2003, a bus going from Bishkek to Xinjiang with 21 Chinese citizens on it was attacked. The passengers were shot dead and the bus was torched.
By that time, Chinese money had started to flow into Central Asia and, after the 2008 global financial crisis, China was so entrenched financially in Central Asia that the governments there had become dependent on Beijing to keep their economies afloat.
Problems Spilling Over Again
When reports started to emerge from Xinjiang a few years ago about a new campaign against Uyghurs, the governments in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan turned a blind eye.
The first instances mentioned discrimination against Uyghurs — their clothes, their beards — but then became increasingly harsh as reports came of forced internment in so-called reeducation camps, intermarriage with Han Chinese, rape, torture, forced sterilizations, and resettlement away from Xinjiang to other areas of China.
When the crackdown was broadened to include other Turkic Muslims, namely among the 1.5 million Kazakhs and more than 200,000 Kyrgyz who inhabit Xinjiang, some of the people in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan started asking why their governments were not raising this issue more forcefully in meetings with Chinese officials.
People such as Serikzhan Bilash, an ethnic Kazakh originally from Xinjiang who is now a Kazakh citizen, founded Atajurt (Fatherland), a group dedicated to exposing Chinese abuses against Kazakhs and other minorities in Xinjiang.
Kazakh authorities pressured Bilash to be quiet. He was arrested and put on trial for fomenting ethnic hatred against Chinese, but public sentiment was on Bilash’s side and eventually he was fined and released after promising to refrain from political activism for seven years.
The Kazakh government then registered a different Atajurt Eriktileri (Volunteers of the Fatherland) that was controlled by defectors from Bilash’s group and takes a much softer line on events in Xinjiang.
This year, when Bilash started posting a program on YouTube, Kazakh authorities again came and fined him.
But there are still a dozen or more ethnic Kazakhs who have escaped from Xinjiang into Kazakhstan and the authorities have bowed to public pressure not to send them back to China.
And there are dozens more ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz originally from Xinjiang who received citizenship in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan but unfortunately returned to Xinjiang for brief visits only to be caught in the crackdown.
Their stories repeatedly come up in the media in both countries.
The horrific treatment that more than an estimated 1 million Uyghurs in the camps in Xinjiang are undergoing on a daily basis — reports denied by Beijing despite the shocking amount of testimony — is almost surely happening as well to the ethnic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz also confined in these camps and it is only a matter of time before the stories are heard in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The governments in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan will then be under greater pressure to take a stronger stand against China’s campaign in Xinjiang.
Once again it is clear that when something major happens on one side of the Tien-Shan, it affects what happens on the other side of those majestic mountains.