A violent encounter on January 23 between Kyrgyz border troops and alleged intruders from China’s Xinjiang province about 40 kilometers inside Kyrgyz Republic territory from the Chinese border left twelve dead, including one Kyrgyz citizen who had originally confronted the group. Initial reports indicated that eleven people were observed in Kyrgyz territory by camp ranger Alexander Barykin, who was killed when attempting to apprehend the men.
According to Kyrgyz news outlets, Barykin was head of the local hunters and fishermen association club in Issyk-Kul province, which neighbors the Chinese border to the south. On the 23rd, while conducting a routine check of the area, Barykin noted an unknown group of men with backpacks heading north. He stopped to identify them but was unable to communicate with them in either Kyrgyz and Russian. Barykin left the intruders to contact a nearby Kyrgyz outpost and alert authorities. What happened next remains murky, but Kyrgyz border troops ultimately surrounded the group, who were allegedly armed with knives and one rifle taken from Barykin. Shortly afterwards, all the intruders were dead.
Chinese news sources could not immediately verify the incident. But the Global Times suggested that the group could have been Uyghur “separatists” linked to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement. Beijing designated ETIM as violent separatist movement responsible for numerous outbreaks of violence in the Xinjiang province.
A week later, however, and the Chinese embassy in Kyrgyzstan was still unable to provide further details on the identities of the suspected Uyghurs. “We are still in the process of establishing the identity of these people. It is impossible to determine their backgrounds by their appearance. But we keep in touch with the agencies on the matter since our cooperation maintained on an ongoing basis,” Chinese diplomats told the AkiPress news outlet in Bishkek.
The World Uyghur Congress, an umbrella organization for Uyghur human rights in Xinjiang province, called for “transparent and independent investigation to avoid politically motivated conclusions regarding events.” WUC President Rebiya Kadeer said in her statement that “Kyrgyzstan remains an important conduit through which Uyghur refugees can escape the repression they are subjected to in East Turkestan. It is well known that the Chinese authorities are exporting their repression abroad via the SCO to curb Uyghur activism and Uyghurs seeking refuge. As a country whose inhabitants were subjected to repression and to whom Uyghurs provided refuge in the past, Uyghurs frequently seek similar assistance from their ethnic, linguistic and cultural cousins in Kyrgyzstan. SCO membership requires member states to align their anti-terrorism, separatism and extremism regulations to the PRC’s notoriously vague and flexible definitions, which have serious ramifications for Uyghurs in this regard.”
Beijing’s heavy-handed security measures in Xinjiang have been regularly criticized by human rights watchdogs in the past. An intensified crackdown on Uyghur dissent in China over the last few months has evidently put pressure on states outside the Chinese borders, with a particular focus on the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. Kyrgyzstan has the largest ethnic Uyghur community in Central Asia, after Kazakhstan. Almost every Uyghur family in the Kyrgyz Republic has close relatives in Xinjiang province. Until this recent incident, Kyrgyzstan’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was predicated on the Kyrgyz economy’s dependency on low-cost Chinese products and Beijing’s investment in the republic’s rundown infrastructure. Kyrgyzstan also takes part in the SCO’s regional security programs, such as the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure headquartered in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Kyrgyz authorities share intelligence data with their Chinese counterparts, includes information obtained by monitoring the Uyghur minority. Cooperation between Central Asian states and China became even more significant after President Xi Jinping’s call for stronger cooperation to fight the “three evil forces” of terrorism, extremism and separatism.
Still, the Kyrgyz public remains divided over this recent incident. Many find it hard to believe that the extremely tight Chinese border control permitted 11 people to squeeze through the perimeter and into Kyrgyz territory unnoticed. As to Kyrgyzstan’s ability to protect its own borders from illegal crossings, domestic experts question the Kyrgyz government’s efforts to secure vulnerable chunks of land along the borders. Suspicions were also raised when Chinese officials and Beijing-based newspapers were quick to use the Kyrgyz government’s reports from the ground on the incident. Likewise, discrepant statements by Kyrgyz officials on the day of the encounter are receiving public scrutiny. One could argue that the spillover effect from violence in Xinjiang now very much involves Central Asian states.
Ryskeldi Satke is a freelance contributor with research institutions and news organizations in Central Asia, Caucasus, Turkey and the U.S. Contact e-mail: rsatke at gmail.com