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Uighurs' revolt: Iran minus the technology [UPDATED]*

July 6, 2009 |  6:17 pm

China, free speech, freedom, Iran, protest, Tibet, Uighur protest, Uighurs, UyghursThe Uighurs, a minority Muslim group in China's westernmost province of Xinjiang, are embroiled in a violent protest. So far, 156 protesters on both sides have died  and more than 1,000 have been injured.

Coming on the heels of the recent Iran election protests, the events in Xinjiang draw a comparison between the two, particularly in the two groups' efforts to use media and their governments' subsequent technological crackdown.

This protest was provoked by the killing of two Uighurs by a mob of Chinese co-workers in a toy factory, fueled by rumors that the two men sexually harassed Han Chinese women. The fight occurred against a backdrop of heightened tensions, as the Uighurs have been pushed out of their province by a growing population of Han Chinese. Hans once made up only 5 percent of Xinjiang's population -- they now represent 40 percent of the region's populous.

The Chinese government is well known for its strict censorship of the media. It happened last year in Tibet during the protests and riots there that, according to the Central Tibetan Administration, killed 220 people just months before the Beijing Olympics. The Chinese people could get little news from Tibet, or at least few reports that included the Tibetans' perspective. And the same has happened now. The government has cut off Internet and domestic cellphone connections to the city of Urumqi, so the Twitters or Facebook statuses from Uighurs and Hans telling of the violence hit firewalls instead of newsstands.

So far, we know that 156 people have died in the continued fighting, both Han Chinese and Uighurs. But the international community and correspondents have been able to gather little more, relying instead on the Chinese state media and groups in the West like the World Uygher Congress, which is based in Germany and has come out against what it calls "China's brutal crackdown of a peaceful protest in Urumchi." In Monday's L.A. Times story, the authors commented that the streets of the regional capital remained quiet and few Uighurs were willing to talk to the press. Many reporters are able to get Internet and phone service through satellite technology, said Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch. 

On the other side, the Chinese government has reported that the Uighurs are solely to blame for the violence and are the ones sparking ethnic tensions that the Chinese military is only trying to quell. Richardson, the Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said the trickle of information coming out of the region has been to little to tell who is to blame for what, which group constitutes the most deaths and who started the violence. 

"We sure as hell don't know who started it," Richardson said. "Uighurs say it started as a peaceful demonstration that turned violent, but it's not clear how or why. They say security forces started firing, the Chinese government says they were provoked and had to uphold public order."

Similar to Iran, which not only cut off media access to citizens and journalists but also blamed the protests on the West, China is placing much of the root cause of the Uighur protest on Uighurs living in the United States, as well as on Rebiya Kadeer, the Uighur democracy leader based in Munich, though she claims she had nothing to do with the revolt. Richardson backed up Kadeer, saying there is no clear evidence that outsiders had anything to do with the protests.

Despite the censorship in both situations, Iranians were better equipped with more technology and a better knowledge of how to use it than are the Uighurs, who do not enjoy the benefits of living in a cosmopolitan capital with immediate computer access or satellite technology. Protesters in Iran were able to widely disperse incredible amounts of information, and doing so caught the world's attention. With China's total shutdown of modern communication devices in Xinjiang province, the reports are slower and the media buzz surrounding this situation is quieter, even though this is one of the deadliest riots since Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Both sides of this ethnic conflict are getting hurt, it seems by the hands of protesters and soldiers alike. Though Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Uyghur Human Rights Project have all documented the decline in human rights for Uighurs in China since the communist takeover 60 years ago this year, Hans are being targeted too in this conflict. Above the ground, however, lies the ever-vigilant Chinese government that is effectively cutting off the right to free speech and communication with the outside world to both Uighurs and Hans -- and no one is benefiting from the blackout.

*This post has been updated from a previous version.

--Catherine Lyons

Photo: Young Uighur Turks living in Turkey wave their flags as they protest against China after riots and street battles killed at least 140 people in China's western Xinjiang province and injured over 800 others in the deadliest ethnic unrest to hit the region in decades, in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, July 6, 2009. Credit: AP Photo / Ibrahim Usta

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