Tag Archives: terrorism

Why Beijing isn’t using the Erawan Shrine bombing to its advantage

A statue of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with people of Chinese descent, including Thais.

An image of Brahma at the Erawan shrine in Bangkok. The Hindu shrine is popular with Chinese tourists, who were among the victims of the attack.

A connection between Uyghur militants from China’s northwest and the August 17th bombing of Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine has been confirmed. Thailand’s police chief made the link explicit during a news conference Tuesday. While the geopolitical consequences of the connection remain to be seen, Beijing could still stand to benefit from the Erawan bombing. However, fears over domestic implications may keep China from using the attack to their advantage.

Two men who have been taken into custody in connection with the case are Yusufu Mieraili and Adem Karadag. Mieraili was arrested in late August with a Chinese passport that listed his birthplace as Xinjiang province – the homeland for the oppressed Muslim-Turkic Uyghur minority. The second suspect was found in an apartment outside Bangkok along with bomb-making materials and dozens of fake Turkish passports.

Thai police issued an arrest warrant for another suspect from Xinjiang, Abudusataer Abudureheman, on Saturday. The 27 year-old Chinese national goes by the name ‘Ishan’ and is the suspected mastermind of the operation. The wanted poster for Ishan first reported that he was of Uyghur ethnicity, though a second version removed the reference and Thai authorities subsequently asked media to “drop the word”.

Observers, both international and Thai made early connections  between the Erawan bombing and the forced repatriation of 109 Chinese Uyghur refugees in July, though it is only now that Thai authorities have acknowledged the Uyghur links to the case. On Tuesday, Thai’s chief of police, Gen. Somyot Poompanmoung blamed the attack on human traffickers who aided Uyghurs refugees, angry that their network had been disrupted by Thai authorities. “Put simply, we destroyed their business.”

Combating domestic terrorism

While the connection between the controversial deportation and the bombing is seemingly bad news for China, there are a number of ways in which the PRC could benefit from this situation. First, the bombing legitimizes China’s domestic anti-terrorism efforts.

The Uyghur struggle for autonomy and Beijing’s efforts to contain it has been anything but peaceful. Systematic state-sponsored economic and physical violence in Xinjiang has been met with repeated attacks on police stations, government buildings, markets and train stations, both in Xinjiang and elsewhere. Beijing has long claimed that many of the terror attacks were coordinated by the East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM), a shadowy separatist organization allegedly linked to al-Qaeda. The very existence of ETIM, let alone its potency, has long been debated among experts and China has struggled to receive widespread recognition for its fight against domestic terrorism. This is largely due to doubts over ETIM and opposition to China’s repressive policies in Xinjiang.

The Erawan attack could change this. Now Beijing can point to the Erawan bombing as credible evidence that Uyghur terrorism is a threat that deserves attention outside of China. By internationalizing the issue, the Chinese government can rationalize its repeated crackdowns on Uyghurs to an international community which has been critical of its past policies. Now, Uyghur terrorism is an international issue that affects everyone – Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2014, after all.

Cross-border cooperation

Additionally, with an internationalization of Uyghur terrorism comes more opportunities for cross-border cooperation. Sino-Thai relations, already made closer by new trans-boundary infrastructure projects, will undoubtedly be strengthened by the Erawan attack. In February 2015, a counter-terrorism cooperation pact was signed between Indonesia and China following the repatriation of four Uyghurs accused of planning the Kunming train station attack. A similar agreement is a likely consequence of the Erawan attack.

International cooperation in combating (and sometimes creating) terror networks has been a lowest-common denominator of sorts for inter-state relations in the 21st century and China should take advantage of this. In the past, China has used links between Uyghur militants and terror cells in northwest Pakistan to strengthen relations with the South Asian state. In light of the Erawan blast, Beijing could coordinate its counter-terrorism efforts with Washington. Sino-US relations have noticeably worsened in recent years, and counter-terrorism, aside from global warming, may be the safest area for increased cooperation between the two regional rivals.

Coordination of border control efforts in Southeast Asia, particularly along China’s southern boundary is another area of possible cooperation. Uyghur migration through southwest China into Southeast Asia is a relatively new trend, and the number of migrants has swelled in recent years. Refugees have been known to use existing smuggling routes out of China and through Southeast Asia, exploiting porous borders and corrupt guards on the way. With the specter of international terrorism looming, China and its southern neighbors could increase cooperation along the margins. This would particularly benefit China’s ties with Myanmar and Vietnam, two countries with strained relations to Beijing.

Historically, Southeast Asian governments have acquiesced to China’s demands for detained Uyghur refugees to be repatriated and many observers presumed that the trend would continue along with China’s rise in regional influence. However, there is wide speculation that the attack at the Erawan Shrine, a site popular with ethnic Chinese, both Thai and tourist alike, was executed in retaliation for Thailand’s deportation of Uyghur refugees. The repatriation of 109 Uyghurs from Thailand in July led to condemnation from human rights groups and protests at China’s consulate in Istanbul, where nationalist Turks see Uyghurs as their pan-Turkic brethren. After Erawan and Turkey’s summer protests, Southeast Asian governments will likely reconsider any future deportations for fear of similar retribution.

Internal Worries

Internal worries over the consequences and implications of the Erawan blast may explain Beijing’s continued silence over the incident. While news of the attack did feature prominently in Chinese media in the days following the blast, there has been scarce coverage of the subsequent investigation, let alone the identity of the alleged attackers. Moreover, Beijing has actively denied Uyghur links to the Erawan attack, calling such speculation “hugely irresponsible” in the days following the explosion. Following the Tuesday statement from Gen. Somyot, there has been no mention of the Uyghur link to Erawan in the Chinese press.

China’s fears are not without merit. First, that the attackers hail from Xinjiang could be a point of embarrassment for the Chinese government. The crisis in northwest China has grown worse by the year – 2014 saw the expansion of Uyghur violence out of Xinjiang to the rest of China – and 2015 has now brought an international attack linked to the Uyghur separatist movement.

In the past, Beijing has refrained from mentioning the ethnicity of suspects in domestic attacks for fear of stoking ethnic tensions. Similar concerns are likely influencing China’s actions post-Erawan. Implicit in China focusing at all on the attack’s connection to Xinjiang is an acknowledgement of failure in solving the country’s ethnic problems and an admission of partial culpability. The government is already having enough trouble convincing its citizenry that it is capable of guiding the country through an economic slowdown – adding more doubts over ethnic and security issues is the last thing Beijing wants.

A Coordinated Response?

The lack of coverage of the investigation in China has been mirrored by Thai authorities’ previous reluctance to link the explosion to Uyghur separatism, and its continued avoidance labeling the attack as terrorism. This, like China’s strategy, is likely targeted at the Chinese public. The number of Chinese visitors to Thailand has exploded in recent years and the money they bring has been a welcome addition to the country’s economy as other sectors have faltered since a military junta took power in 2014. News of a bomb in downtown Bangkok was always going to affect tourism numbers, but connections to Uyghur terrorism will undoubtedly cause many prospective Chinese visitors to think twice before booking flights to the kingdom.

What’s more, Thailand’s handling of the case has raised questions of Chinese involvement in the case. The delayed official announcement of the Uyghur and the offiical waffling over the ethnicity of the suspects signaled to some that China had an affect on the investigation. Further, Thai officials asked media to avoid analysis that might affect “international relationships,” interpreted by many to mean China. A coordinated response by Bangkok and Beijing would make sense. In addition to being the source of millions of tourists each year,  China is Thailand’s largest trade partner and the closest ally of its military government.

Now that Bangkok has shown its hand, Beijing’s response will be critical to watch. Political savvy on the part of China’s foreign ministry could turn an international tragedy into an opportunity for more positive ties with Southeast Asia. However, the domestic implications of publicizing the link between Xinjiang and Erawan shrine will likely keep Beijing silent for now.

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Filed under China, Current Events, Human trafficking, Kunming Train Station Attack, Regional Relations, SLIDER, Thailand

Kunming Train Station Attack Suspects Arrested in Indonesia

Four of the attackers were found guilty following their trial in September 2014.

Four men suspected of planning the 2014 Kunming Train Station attack were arrested this week in Indonesia. According to a report in the Jakarta Post, the Chinese and Indonesian governments agreed to enhance counter-terrorism cooperation in exchange for  information regarding nine Chinese nationals suspected of planning the Kunming terrorist attack. The agreement was signed by the head of the Indonesian  National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) Comr. Gen. Saut Usman and China’s Deputy Public Security Minister Meng Hongwei  in Beijing on Tuesday, February 10.

The terror suspects were reportedly arrested on Monday near Poso, Central Sulawesi Province. Speaking after the signing of the cooperation agreement,Saut, director of the BNPT,  said that only four of the nine suspects were arrested. Of the remaining five, three fled into the Sulawesi jungle, while two others escaped to Malaysia. After being picked up by police, the four suspects initially admitted to being Chinese nationals from Xinjiang, however they later changed their story, saying they were from Turkey. China and Indonesia signed an extradition treaty in 2009 so if it is true that suspects are indeed Chinese nationals, it is likely that they will be soon be sent to China to face charges.

In recent years, more and more Uighurs have fled China through Yunnan and into Southeast Asia. In  March 2014, a group of more than 200 Uighur refugees were found in a Thai human trafficking camp near the Malaysian border and earlier that month more than 60 Uighurs were caught escaping into Malaysia. In both cases, those in question claimed Turkish nationality. In previous cases, Uighurs found immigrating illegally into Cambodia and Malaysia were extradited back to China, where they were imprisoned.

In Chinese media, connections between the suspects and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have been made. According to one story on Sina.com, the four suspects were found with Islamic State paraphernalia, leading some to believe that they have a relation to the terrorist organization.  To date, more than three hundred Chinese nationals have joined the Islamic State, and recent reports say that three Chinese fighters were beheaded earlier this month as punishment for defection.

Though the exact story of their arrival in Sulawesi is murky at the moment,  Saut believes they are indeed from China. “They are believed to have fled to Poso by taking the land route through Myanmar, southern Thailand and Malaysia. From Malaysia, they entered Indonesia through Medan with Turkish passports and they posed as asylum seekers when they were in Medan,” he said as quoted by Antara news agency. According to Saut, the terrorism suspects went to Puncak in Bogor, Java to join a group of people from the Middle East who wanted to go to Poso.

Central Sulawesi has long been one of Indonesia’s most unstable regions. Starting in the late nineties, tensions between the province’s Muslim and Christian communities began to boil over before a spate of violence gripped the province. A series of bus attacks in Poso in 2002 and the beheadings of three teenage girls in 2005 brought a certain notoriety to the region  and to this day it’s known as a hotbed for extremist activity in the Indonesian archipelago.

The timing of the arrests and the signing of the counter terrorism cooperation agreement between the two countries is unlikely to be a coincidence. According to information received from the Indonesian Embassy in Beijing, the suspects’ names were on international terrorist watchlists and it is probable that Indonesian authorities picked them up independent of Chinese involvement. Following their arrests, it is likely that the Indonesian government used the news as a bargaining chip  to get the Chinese to sign the bilateral cooperation agreement. The arrests, being related to such a high-profile case, and the cooperation agreement should be seen as victories for Indonesia, whose relationship with China is growing closer, despite persistent maritime issues.

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Three sentenced to death for Kunming Train Station attack

The Intermediate Court of Kunming has found four defendants guilty of carrying out a deadly knife attack that claimed the lives of 31 civilians and injured 141 in March of this year. Three of the defendants, all men, received the death penalty, while the lone female suspect was sentenced to life in prison.

The one-day trail, held on September 12, lasted only a few hours. Video shows the three men, Iskandar Ehet, Turgun Tohtunyaz and Hasayn Muhammad seated in court with shaved heads, wearing matching blue prison uniforms. They were all found guilty of “premeditated murder and leading and organizing a terrorist group”. The fourth defendant, Patigul Tohti, will spend the rest of her life behind bars after being found guilty of “intentional homicide and joining a terrorist group”.

None of the men on trial participated directly in the train station attack, according to a BBCreport. Instead, they coordinated the assault from afar — making plans beforehand and then directing five of their associates. Court documents made public following the trial say the three men were all captured by police two days before the attacks occurred.

This narrative directly contradicts previous official accounts claiming the suspects were apprehended March 4 following a 36-hour manhunt in Kunming and beyond. It remains unclear when or where the men were actually captured, as no details of their arrests have ever been made public. Conversely, the story surrounding female assailant Tohti has remained consistent since March.

She was arrested following a bloody rampage wherein she and four others indiscriminately stabbed dozens of people who were queueing to buy tickets at the Kunming Train Station. Tohti was eventually subdued by police and arrested, while her four co-conspirators were all reportedly shot dead in a span of 15 seconds by a SWAT team sniper.

The trial in Kunming was uncharacteristically open to the public, and 300 people, including victims and their families, attended the proceedings. Security at the courthouse was increased noticeably, with armed guards posted both inside and outside the courtroom.

China has significantly ramped up law enforcement and ‘anti-terror’ efforts following the bloodshed in Kunming. In many cities around the country, police officers are now permitted to carry sidearms for the first time in decades. Trials involving suspected militants have also increased, and hundreds of people have been jailed for terrorism-related crimes by Xinjiang police as violence escalated over the summer.

This article was written by Patrick Scally and originally published on GoKunming

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Filed under China, ethnic policy, Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

The Kunming Train Station Attack: A Hypothesis

In answering the question “Why was Kunming chosen as the site of last Saturday’s attack?”consider the following:

In response to a police crackdown in Hotan, Xinjiang beginning in the summer of 2013, a large group of Uighurs attempted to make their way to Laos through Yunnan. Instead of escaping to Southeast Asia as refugees as planned, thirty were arrested at the border along with dozens of others throughout the province. Warrants were issued for those who were not immediately caught, and a detailed most wanted list was made public. At least eight remained at large and as time passed, hope for the release of their compatriots or relatives and their own escape to a foreign refuge grew smaller. With warrants out for their arrest and a heavy police presence in Xinjiang, returning home was impossible. Without local ID cards, settling down in Yunnan would prove just as difficult. Out of viable options, the group of eight decided to make a brutal last stand, taking out vengeance on the province where their plans failed. Gathering what little resources they could find in Kunming, the group planned to strike where they would be able to cause the most damage. And so on March 1, 2014, five people walked into the Kunming Train Station with knives and terror ensued. Continue reading

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Filed under China, Current Events, Kunming Train Station Attack, SLIDER, Yunnan Province

Kunming Train Station Attacks: The Media’s Response

 

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It’s Monday night, local time, and more than a day has passed since Kunmingers and the rest of the world awoke to news of Saturday night’s terrorist attack at the Kunming Railway Station. In that time, local residents, concerned citizens, the media and the world at large have begun the process of digesting what happened and what it all means. In this short time, reports have gone from panicked messages on mobile chat apps to full articles in the international press and an ongoing discussion on Twitter and Weibo. A few narratives have emerged, each with their distinct angle on the attack and some focused solely on the reaction to them.

Many of the first stories that were published were strict accounts what happened, such as this report from the BBC. The BBC story is representative in describing only the scene at the train station and eyewitness accounts of the attack. Similar stories were found on the websites of most news outlets.

The Chinese press, like the international press, only reported accounts of the scene at first, but stressed the official response, with most articles carrying quotes from President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. Today, much of the coverage focused around security measures,  the efforts of medical teams in Kunming, and Chinese citizens’ response to the attacks.

Another narrative in the Chinese press was one of anger towards the foreign media for their treatment of the incident. One hotly discussed essay was this one from Xinhua News. Both the US Embassy and CNN drew Xinhua’s ire for downplaying the importance of the attacks. CNN put quotation marks around the word ‘terrorists’ in its first article on the incident while the US Embassy’s official statement failed to identify the attackers as terrorist. Xinhua was not the only one angry with the US Embassy, with thousands of Chinese criticizing the US online as well. In addition, this graphic from the People’s Daily online edition made for an intense discussion on both Twitter and Weibo.

A third strain of coverage of the incident centered around the bigger picture for China’s minority populations going forward. This article from Reuters looks at the possibility for increased tension between Uighurs and the majority Han population. A 2013 ChinaFile article by James Palmer, republished yesterday by Foreign Policy, was another article looking at ethnic tensions in Xinjiang that made the rounds on Twitter over the past 36 hours. The discussion around both articles has focused on whether or not the Kunming attacks are a harbinger for a new wave of crackdowns in Xinjiang and it’s a conversation that is sure to develop over the next days and weeks.

One line of discourse that has been missing from coverage is that of local Kunmingers. As often happens with events like these, the details and reactions of those most affected are discarded for larger implications and trends. Whether it be another short-lived skirmish over media bias towards China or the continuation of a long discussion on ethnic tensions in China, what locals think might be lost in the shuffle. Some interesting storylines that should be followed are: how Kunming as a city heals from the attacks; the language locals use to talk about the attack and what we can learn from that; how Kunming’s Uighur and Hui Muslim populations have been affected by the attacks; and how these attacks fit in the larger picture of ethnic relations in Yunnan. These are all critical questions and East by Southeast will do its best to find answers to them in the coming days. At the same time, we encourage our readers to reach out and tell us how they have been affected by the attacks what they see as important in the aftermath of such an event.

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