Posted on 01 Nov 2005 # Reuters

China's Muslim Uighurs "don't dare talk"

YINING, China: The same muttered phrase greets any curious visitor who strays into the mosques and bazaars dotting towns in Xinjiang province in China's remote northwest.

"We don't dare talk," members of the Uighur ethnic minority whisper, coming from prayers or as they head out shopping.

One or two who are braver, or more foolish, glance around to scout for eavesdroppers before complaining about how hard it is to find jobs, educate their children or practise their religion.

Xinjiang is nominally autonomous and ruled by the Uighurs -- Muslims with Caucasian features who speak a Turkic language -- and other ethnic minorities.

But since Mao's troops seized China in 1949 and took control of the region, Beijing has maintained a firm grip on the levers of power and made Uighurs a minority in their own home by encouraging millions of Han Chinese to settle there.

Any incautious criticism of Chinese rule can land a Uighur in prison, exiled activists say.

Only formally incorporated into China in 1884, Xinjiang saw a brief period of virtual independence from 1938 when it sought aid from the Soviet Union -- giving added impetus to a 150-year fight for an independent East Turkestan homeland.

But the province is strategically vital to Beijing. It sits on a third of the country's oil and 40 percent of its coal, accounts for around one sixth of Chinese territory and gives it a border with several central Asian nations.

Chinese officials say that while tight control is needed to stamp out separatist sentiment and terrorist ideas imported from countries like Afghanistan, the 19-million-strong population basically lives in harmony.

"Our biggest threat to ethnic relations is Osama bin Laden and the Taliban," Bai Hua, vice-mayor of the regional capital, Urumqi, told Reuters, waving away suggestions of domestic discontent.

WIDESPREAD DISTRUST But with the last serious violence dating back to the late 1990s -- nine died in riots in Yining in 1997 -- some say China is exploiting international fears of terrorism.