The late-evening mayhem by knife-wielding ‘terrorists’ at the Kunming railway station in Yunnan on March 1 has already been described as ‘China’s 9/11’ by the State media. By all accounts, the unprecedented attack seems to have caught the country’s formidable security apparatus by surprise. At 9.20 pm local time , 10 to 12 men and women in black uniforms stormed the Kunming railway station and stabbed anyone in sight with long knives. Twenty nine people — passengers, passers-by and railway employees — bled to death inside the railway station. More than 140 people were injured, many of them critically.
The Chinese police and the public security bureau insist that the number of attackers was “not more than 10 to 12”. The assault group must have then been trained to kill the most in minimum time and with only basic weapons before the inevitable Chinese security response which would be heavy. There is no evidence yet of the use of firearms in the attack. The number of casualties caused by knives alone reveals the murderous intent of the attackers.
The panic that the Kunming rail station attack has generated seems all-pervasive in the province. Residents are in a state of shock, and hundreds of foreign students — many of them are from India and Bangladesh — who study in Yunnan’s ever-growing number of excellent universities and professional colleges are in a state of panic. This is evident from the chat rooms they have organized to communicate with one another. Tourists who flock to Yunnan in large numbers at this time of the year appear to be shaken as well. Again, their posts suggest that they are having second thoughts over visiting Kunming to catch a glimpse of great sites like the Stone Forest.
Unlike Xinjiang, China’s western province that has witnessed periodic outbursts of violence ranging from ‘terror attacks’ to rioting between indigenous Muslim Uighurs and Han settlers, or Tibet with its growing spate of self-immolations, Yunnan has been largely peaceful since the convulsions in 1975 involving local Muslims opposed to the excesses committed during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. In July 2008, Kunming was hit by a twin bombing that ripped through two public buses, injuring 14 passengers. China’s police and the public security bureau kept the investigation under wraps and did not reveal who were behind the attacks.
Yunnan is home to many small non-Han nationalities. In fact, of China’s 55 listed ethnic minorities, 25 are found in Yunnan. But none of these groups has a record of visible disaffection or political unrest. Most appear content with rising incomes due to the boom in tourism, both domestic and international. China has made efforts to showcase Yunnan’s ethnic diversity for both Chinese and overseas tourists. A huge settlement on the outskirts of Kunming has well-organized hamlets of these nationalities where cultural events like tribal dances continue throughout the day to give tourists a glimpse of Yunnan’s ethno-cultural diversity.
Therefore, most in China tended to blame the July 2008 bombings in Kunming on the restive Uighurs of Xinjiang. But this was not confirmed officially. It was also not clear whether anyone was nabbed for possible involvement in the attack. This time, within a day of the attack in Kunming railway station, China’s public security bureau has blamed the murderous assault on Uighur Muslim terrorists. The State news agency, Xinhua, quoted one of its officials as saying that the train station attack was “an organized, premeditated violent terrorist attack”. “Evidence at the crime scene showed that the Kunming Railway Station terrorist attack was carried out by Xinjiang separatist forces,” he added.
This is not exactly the first evidence that the restive Uighurs have hit outside their homeland. Militants representing this Turkic Muslim minority, which resents growing Han migrations into and Chinese impositions on their province bordering the Central Asian republics that broke away from the erstwhile Soviet Union, have struck at Chinese police stations and Han settlements at regular intervals. Xinjiang’s worst violence in decades took place in July 2009, when rioting in the capital, Urumqi, between Uighurs and Han Chinese, killed some 200 people and injured 1,700. That unrest was followed by a huge crackdown by security forces. But it now appears that smaller terror modules of angry, desperate Uighurs have emerged after the crackdown: men who find it difficult to transport firearms and explosives dodging China’s stringent security radar screen but who are still prepared for murderous attacks even if only knives are available. Since half of those who organized the Kunming rail station attack were killed, these assaults could be counted as somewhat suicidal in nature. Chinese intelligence suspects that a breakaway terror module of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement is responsible for the attack. The module, allegedly, shares some links with the al Qaida.
It is evident that these small groups are determined to carry their battle to the Chinese heartland, much in keeping with the al Qaida’s operational line of striking beyond the periphery. Even if their role in the July 2008 bus bombings could not be established, Chinese intelligence seems to be in ‘no doubt’ about the ETIM’s involvement in a bizarre attack in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in October 2013. Some Uighurs drove an SUV into a crowd of pedestrians at the famous square on a holiday morning. Two pedestrians and three occupants of the vehicle were killed, and at least 12 people were injured. China blamed the ‘terrorist attack’ on Uighur separatists.
The response these attacks have drawn from the Munich-based World Uighur Congress, led by its president, Rebiya Kadeer, is rather interesting. Kadeer, a former millionaire who once advised China’s parliament but was then locked up in prison until she made it to the United States of America on medical parole, first doubted whether Uighurs were at all involved in the Tiananmen Square attack. Then when questioned hard by Western journalists, Kadeer said if Uighurs were indeed involved, it would be “because they were desperate to be heard about Chinese injustices and oppression.” But she called for an international investigation to establish who were involved — “because Chinese investigations are biased and cannot be trusted.” She continued to insist that the Tiananmen Square attack would join a long list of incidents that China uses “to justify its heavy-handed repression” in her native region.
Kadeer and her WUC have strong Western connections, but it appears that those responsible for the Tiananmen Square attacks or the one at Kunming railway station five months later are much more radicalized than the first-generation activists led by Kadeer. For them, radical Islam is as strong a motivation as Uighur sub-nationalism. Omar Nasiri’s book, Inside the Jihad, which details his days as a Western intelligence agent inside al Qaida, testifies to the presence of a large number of young Uighur radicals who were trained in the terror group’s many bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan prior to 9/11 and the US intervention in Afghanistan. This did cause some tensions in the otherwise all-weather Sino-Pakistani friendship in recent years as Beijing pushed Islamabad on any possible Uighur presence on its territory.
Pakistani intelligence may not dare upset the Chinese for fear of a harsh reaction, as they have done in Kashmir, but the terror groups they helped nurture could not care less. For these Islamist radicals, including the ones who are members of al Qaida, China as a communist nation, much like the former Soviet Union, is as much an ‘enemy of Islam’ as India or the US. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current al Qaida chief, has in recent months strongly endorsed the struggles of various oppressed Muslim groups — from the Uighurs in China to Rohingyas in Myanmar.
The Kashmiri separatists started to take the fight to the Indian heartland in the late 1990s. There is now evidence that Xinjiang’s Uighurs are doing the same in China, the bigger hurdles notwithstanding. A localized movement for self-determination cannot sustain for long against the military might of a modern State, specially in the case of emerging economies like China and India. When this realization dawns, the movement tends to look for ways to hit the country’s heartland for tactical reasons. In India, the radicalized Kashmiris could look forward to merge their cause with angry Muslim young men from elsewhere in the country given the inflamed passions after 1992. This is something that the Uighur militants in China may not find — men and women from other Muslim communities ready to take on Beijing.
But Beijing cannot afford yet another recurrence of an attack like the one that took place in Kunming. Yunnan is China’s ‘bridgehead’ province through which Beijing has systematically sought to develop road, rail, air and waterways connectivity with all its neighbours in southeast and south Asia for more than two decades now. Kunming is Yunnan’s capital, home to numerous consulates and trade offices that foreign governments not only from the neighbourhood but also from Australia have set up in the city. Yunnan is key to China’s booming tourism industry. Last but not the least, Yunnan serves as a precious link to China’s alternative access to sea to avoid the Malacca chokepoint — it is home to oil and gas pipelines going into Myanmar’s coast and the Kyaukpyu port there is funded by Beijing.