SUSPICION, IF SCANT hard evidence, is growing that there is a Chinese Uighur connection to the bombing of the Erawan shrine in the Thai capital Bangkok last month.
Thai police say that an alleged accomplice to the still-fugitive bomber had in his possession when captured near the Cambodian border a Chinese passport identifying him as Yusufu Mieraili, born in Xinjiang, home to China’s Turkic Muslim Uighur minority. Unnamed Chinese officials have declared to state media that Mieraili is a member of the Muslim separatist East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM).
Thai authorities said at the weekend that they had issued a warrant for the arrest of the suspected organiser of the plot, whom they named as Abudusataer Abudureheman, a 27-year-old from Xinjiang. He is reported to have fled Thailand.
Muddying the picture is reports of Malaysian police arresting three people suspected of helping the bombers leave Thailand. They are two Malaysians and a Pakistani.
Authorities in Beijing are known to be watching the case closely. If, as it is being suggested, the bombing was retaliation for Thailand’s repatriation to China in July of 100 Uighurs, then it would provide Beijing with vindication — at last — for its long-standing claim that the ETIM is an international terrorist threat.
The group, which Washington, at Beijing’s urging, also put on its list of foreign terrorist organizations post-9/11 but now seems to have quietly dropped, wants an independent East Turkistan state stretching from Xinjiang somewhat indeterminately westwards. Most of the 8 million Uighurs live in Xinjiang, but the diaspora spreads to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey and a lesser extent beyond.
East Turkistan has had two brief periods as an independent state. Mao’s revolution put an end to that. In 1955, it was declared to be China’s Xinjiang autonomous region.
Uighur militants have been fighting a low-key war with Beijing for years. More recently, particularly since late 2013, they have been able to extend attacks beyond Xinjiang, despite a hardening security crackdown on Uighurs in the region. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which may be a splinter cell from ETIM or the ETIM in another incarnation, claimed responsibility for fatal attacks in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and notably Kunming, where 33 people, including four of eight knife-wielding attackers, died at the railway station. In Urumqi, a car bomb killed 42 people including all four attackers, all believed to be Uighurs.
However, the opaque and obscure ETIM, which was first heard of around 1997, has scarcely shown the capacity to operate across international borders with any consistency, if at all. One of its founders, who moved the organization in the late 1990s from Xinjiang to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, was reportedly killed shortly after in a U.S. drone strike against al-Qaeda bases; another languishes in a Chinese jail.
Its current leader is reputedly Abdullah Mansour, although little is known about him or the rest of the leadership. Mansour told the Reuters news agency last year that it was his Islamic duty to fight China. However, it seems more focused on the Middle East than the Middle Kingdom. A ‘Turkistan brigade’ of foreign fighters, including Uzbeks, is reportedly in Syria alongside al-Qaeda aligned forces, supported by militant Uighurs in Turkey.
It is nigh impossible to know the strength of the ETIM though it probably numbers in the low hundreds. Reuters news agency quoted Pakistan intelligence sources as putting the number at 400. More than 20 Uighurs captured by the U.S. in 2001 in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban were held for several years in Guantanamo Bay. Once released, they were not repatriated to China by the United States. Pakistan, however, has been readier to hand over captured Uighurs to Beijing.
As in other parts of the western Marches, minorities have long complained of the Han colonisation of the regions in which they have traditionally lived, a suppression of their religions and cultures, and a worsening of their economic prospects compared to the newcomers. Shortly after the revolution, in 1953, three-quarters of Xinjiang’s inhabitants were Uighur. In the latest published census (2000) they accounted for barely two-fifths. Beijing says its sole intention is to promote economic development.
If indeed the Bangkok attack is Uighur-related, Beijing is likely grab with both hands the opportunity to jump on any signs of separatism in Xinjiang regardless of whether the ultimate instigators of the Bangkok bombing were the ETIM or sympathizers in Xinjiang or Turkey.
Separatism is a prime fear of Beijing’s and provokes well-armed counterterrorism measures whenever it is perceived. Stability in Xinjiang is a particular concern. The region is not only mineral- and energy-rich, but it is also a critical corridor through which the One Belt (New Silk Road) of the One Belt One Road project passes.