Last Updated: Monday, 20 November 2017, 16:41 GMT

Uighur separatists step up protests during Olympic run-up

Publisher EurasiaNet
Publication Date 3 April 2008
Cite as EurasiaNet, Uighur separatists step up protests during Olympic run-up, 3 April 2008, available at: [accessed 21 November 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.


Tibet is proving not to be the only flashpoint of discontent for Chinese leaders as the country prepares to host the summer Olympic Games. Uighurs, a Muslim minority group in western Xinjiang Province, have stepped up protests over Chinese rule in recent weeks.

On April 3, about 200 Uighurs staged a protest in the heart of Istanbul's tourist district shortly before the Olympic torch was to pass through the Turkish city on its global tour. A banner unfurled at the protest read: "Turkey, stand by your brothers" – a reference to Uighurs' Turkic cultural heritage. Throughout the protest, police appeared to outnumber the demonstrators.

Uighurs, many of whom still refer to their homeland as East Turkestan, have long complained that Beijing is striving to eradicate their culture. In recent years, Uighur separatists have resorted to violence, prompting Chinese officials to label them as terrorists. One Uighur separatist group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has been designated by the United Nations as a terrorist organization.

As the coming Olympics help focus global attention on China, several incidents in recent weeks have heightened Beijing's concern about Uighur attempts to discredit the Communist government, and call attention to their separatist aspirations. In early March, two passengers reportedly attempted to commandeer and crash a Chinese passenger jetliner as it flew from Beijing to Xinjiang Province. Chinese media reported that the attempt was foiled without elaborating. However, an independent expert, citing Uighur sources and speaking on condition of anonymity, contended that Chinese authorities fabricated the incident and coerced confessions in order to justify a crackdown on the separatists.

More recently, officials have acknowledged that Uighur separatists staged a brief protest in the provincial city of Hotan on March 23. "A small number of elements tried to incite splittism, create disturbances in the marketplace and even trick the masses into an uprising," read a statement posted on a Chinese government website. Some foreign news outlets, including the US-funded Radio Free Asia, have reported that the protest was spurred by the death of a prominent Uighur entrepreneur while in police custody.

Amid the ongoing unrest in Tibet, along with the simmering ferment in Xinjiang, human rights advocates are starting to publicly lament the decision to award the Olympic Games to China. In a statement released March 31, Amnesty International said the world community was sadly mistaken in believing claims made by Chinese officials that giving the 2008 Summer Games to Beijing would prompt an improvement in the country's respect for human rights.

"It was hoped that the Games would act as a catalyst for reform, but much of the current wave of repression against activists and journalists is occurring not in spite of, but actually because of the Olympics," the statement said. "Positive changes such as a reform of the death penalty system and a greater reporting freedom for foreign journalists have been overshadowed by stalled reform of detention without trial, repression of human rights defenders and internet censorship."

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