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Rights Groups Doubt Uyghur Involvement in Tiananmen Attack

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China Power

Rights Groups Doubt Uyghur Involvement in Tiananmen Attack

Uyghur activists fear China will use suicide attack as an excuse to crack down further in Xinjiang.

On Monday morning, a jeep carrying a driver and two passengers hopped barriers, careened through a crowd and burst into flames in Tiananmen Square—the Gate of Heavenly Peace—killing five and injuring 38 others, not far from the famous face of Chairman Mao. The incident has been treated as a terrorist attack by Chinese authorties. On Tuesday, it was announced that police were looking for suspects from Xinjiang.

However, as more details are released, certain Uyghur rights groups are wary of China's media coverage and cautioning against accepting China’s narrative about Uyghur involvement without question. 

Alim Seytoff, director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, told The Diplomat: "Without a formal and international investigation of what has transpired on Monday at Tiananmen Square, Chinese claims simply cannot be accepted as facts." He went on to say: "It is highly unlikely that some Uyghurs could pull off something like this in the most securely-guarded square in China."

Enmity runs deep between the Chinese government and Uyghur rights groups. Chinese policies in the Xinjiang region have generally been harsh and are strongly condemned by the World Uyghur Congress and other rights groups. For their part, Chinese authorities believe Uyghur rights groups are the epicenter of their problems in the restive province. This rare suicide bombing in the heart of the city—indeed the nation—is sure to strain an already tense relationship.

Though there is no reason to be necessarily skeptical of the state media version of events, Beijing has done itself no favors by putting strict limits on media coverage of the event. Uyghur rights groups have seized upon this lack of information.

"At the moment, nobody is sure what exactly happened on Monday in Tiananmen Square because Chinese police detained both BBC and AFP reporters who were on the scene right after the incident and deleted the photos and footage in their cameras," says Alim Seytoff. "Apparently, the Chinese government has something to hide."

The mistrust between the Chinese government and Uyghur rights groups has occasionally lapsed into violence. On October 3, four Uyghurs were reportedly killed when police fired on a private residence suspected of illegally convening the World Uyghur Congress. Viewed by many people abroad as a rights and political organization, to Beijing the World Uyghur Congress is a borderline terrorist organization that it blames for the bloody unrest in Xinjiang in 2009.

Following Monday’s attacks in Tiananmen, China has tried to catch two other terror suspects by sending notices to hotels and checking vehicles. But even this has drawn suspicion. Seytoff warns: "Every time something like this happens, authorities usually point fingers at Uyghurs. The notice should not be taken as evidence of Uyghur involvement in the incident."

His statement was echoed by Rebiya Kadeer, leader of the World Uyghur Congress, who warned that China may use the alleged Uyghur suicide attack on Monday to implement harsher policies in the Xinjiang region.

“I fear for the future of East Turkestan [Xinjiang] and the Uygur people more than I ever have,” Kadeer said in a statement. “The Chinese government will not hesitate to concoct a version of the incident in Beijing so as to further impose repressive measures on the Uygur people.”

It is not entirely improbable that the attackers were Uyghurs considering the increased violence in the Xinjiang region since the beginning of China's March crackdown. Moreover, Uyghurs have been suspected of carrying out attacks in Beijing during the 1990s. Despite these few attacks in the 1990s, however, the seemingly endless violence in Xinjiang rarely, if ever, spills into the nation's capital.