Uighurs in Kunming fear attack will raise tensions

IT IS an uncommon sight on the streets of Kunming's Dashuying area: Han Chinese barber Jiang Ke chatting with Uighur gemstone trader Iliya about installing new mobile apps on their phones.

Dashuying is known locally as a Xinjiang village, with a large number of Uighurs following a recent influx from China's western region.

Food vendor Xu Chao, 38, admits he has never spoken to his Uighur neighbours, his reticence stemming partly from having seen about 70 knife-wielding Uighurs in an apparent gang fight last year. "I think Uighurs are nice people and they sell really nice food, but I don't know how to interact with them," he said.

As Kunming grapples with the aftermath of Saturday night's railway- station knifing rampage blamed on Xinjiang separatists that left at least 29 people dead and more than 140 others injured, many are still asking: Why Kunming?

Some wonder if local tensions between Han Chinese and Muslim Uighurs are to blame.

Observers like anthropologist Hao Shiyuan do not think so. He believes the root causes are in Xinjiang, where the Uighurs' long-held dissatisfaction with what they perceive to be unfair and oppressive Chinese rule has sparked violence in recent years.

"It is not due to local conditions in Yunnan province which, given its high proportion of ethnic minorities, makes it more accepting of Xinjiang natives as well," he told The Straits Times.

But for Xinjiang natives like Mr Iliya, 42, who declined to give his full name, the fear is that Saturday's terror attack will make his life in Kunming more difficult. He said Han Chinese taxi drivers often do not stop for him and Han Chinese barbers do not serve him, because he is a Uighur.

He is livid that his fellow Uighurs could be behind the attack. "They are only a small group of people who oppose the government. Many of us in Xinjiang reject what they do, and definitely their violent acts," he said.

Mr Jiang, the 26-year-old barber from nearby Sichuan province, believes more interaction between Han Chinese and Uighurs is needed. He recalled his initial misgivings when, after opening his shop in Dashuying, a Uighur customer pointed a knife at him after a heated argument.

These days, he counts Uighurs among his friends and has never thought of leaving Dashuying.

On Monday, China's fourth-ranked leader Yu Zhengsheng, whose portfolio includes overseeing Xinjiang, said the government would do more to boost development in ethnic minority areas, in an implied recognition of the economic roots of unhappiness in restive regions such as Xinjiang.

But after Saturday's attack, the government is under pressure to toughen security measures in Xinjiang, with survivors like Madam Chen Guizhen demanding justice. She and her husband were spending the night next to the railway station so they could catch the train the next day to coastal Zhejiang where they work as cleaners.

As a man standing on her left fell to the ground and she heard shouts that people were being slain, Madam Chen saw a man seated on her right whip out a long knife. She tried to rouse her husband as she fled.

"I turned back and saw the attacker hacking at my husband's forehead as he was trying to put on his shoes," said the 50-year-old who hid in a locked room with several other petrified commuters. When she went back to look for her husband, he was dead.

"I have lost my husband and I have illnesses which make it hard for me to work. The government should do more and give me more financial aid," she said from her hospital bed.

"It should arrest the remaining attackers and execute them."


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