BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan – Anguished by ethnic violence in China but fearful that crackdowns on their minority group could spread, Uighur activists across Central Asia said Tuesday they have urged local communities to avoid large public protests.
Up to half a million Uighurs live in the former Soviet states west of China, prompting concerns that ethnic clashes in China's western Xinjiang region could trigger a wave of violence across the region.
Tensions still run high in Xinjiang amid tight security, more than a week after the regional capital, Urumqi, erupted in riots that the government says claimed 184 lives. Chinese authorities say most of those killed were Han Chinese — an assertion denied by international Uighur rights groups.
Public reactions among Uighur minorities in Central Asia have been muted, however, amid fears that governments might crack down on protesters to appease China, the regional giant.
"This has been a strong psychological blow for Uighurs in Kazakhstan," said Khakhriman Khozhamberdi, who leads an Uighur political movement in that country. About 300,000 ethnic Uighurs live in Kazakhstan, the largest population outside China.
"But no protests are taking place here," Khozhamberdi said. "Instead we are holding traditional religious ceremonies as a mark of respect for the dead. We are calling on everybody to remain peaceful."
The far-flung Uighur diaspora in Central Asia are descendants of refugees that escaped Xinjiang during the Chinese conquest of that region in 1870s. Like many other Central Asian peoples, they speak a Turkic language and most are Muslims.
During the Soviet era, China had little influence in this energy-rich land of sand and steppe. Today, Beijing's political and economic influence is rapidly expanding.
In April, Beijing agreed to lend Kazakhstan about $5 billion in exchange for an increased stake in the country's energy sector.
In Kyrgyzstan, home to around 60,000 ethnic Uighurs, activists hoped that 2,000 would come to a protest outside the Chinese embassy after news of the violence in Xinjiang. But those plans were shelved due to concerns that authorities would use force to disrupt any large-scale demonstrations ahead of presidential elections later this month.
"We decided not to pursue this path of action at this time, since there is an election campaign going on and we feared some act of provocation," said Askhat Namanov, a leader of Ittipak, a Uighur rights group.
Instead, Namanov said the Uighur community has begun a letter-writing campaign to China, the United Nations, the United States, Russia and several other countries to rally support for their cause.
In a letter to the United Nations, Kyrgyz Uighurs called for the public condemnation of Chinese policies allegedly aimed at driving Uighur minorities from Xinjiang so they can be used as cheap labor.
Governments in the region have remained largely silent about the events in Xinjiang but all have denounced separatist movements. In recent days, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan have evacuated more than 1,000 of their nationals from the violence-affected Chinese region.
Government officials in impoverished Tajikistan, which shares a mountainous 250-mile (400-kilometer) border with China and has around 6,000 ethnic Uighurs, say they do not expect any local repercussions.
"Interethnic relations in Tajikistan are stable," said Zukhra Madamedzhanova, head of govenment-run ethnic relations department.
Tajik Uighur leaders have also reacted cautiously to the riots in China and expressed fears about worsening economic ties with their neighbor to the east.
"Now, hardly any businessmen are traveling to Urumqi, but previously our traders would go there everyday for goods," said Olim Khasanov, chairman of the Uighur Association in Tajikistan. "We sympathize with both the Chinese government and our compatriots in Urumqi."
In the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, about 15 activists held an unauthorized picket outside the Chinese embassy, holding up signs reading: "No to racism in China!"
Some Azeri protesters tried to approach the embassy to submit a resolution, but four of them were detained by police.
Turkey has ethnic and linguistic ties to China's Uighur minority, and thousands of Turks on Sunday protested in an Istanbul square to denounce the ethnic violence in Xinjiang. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan even compared the ethnic violence to genocide.
About 5,000 people gathered in Istanbul's Caglayan square, on the European side of the city, holding up Turkish flags and the blue-and-white flags of a short-lived Uighur breakaway republic in the 1930s.
There have been no street protests since the weekend, but a Turkish foreign ministry official said China on Monday sent a former ambassador for talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu to calm tensions.
While most Uighurs are Muslim, the clashes in China have generated little reaction in the broader Middle East and Arab world.
Kuwaiti political analyst Ayed al-Mannah said the Uighurs don't have much "political weight" in the broader Muslim society. "They are not mujahedeen and they are not Palestinians," he said.
Of the 184 reported killed in Urumqi on July 5, the Chinese government has said 137 were Han Chinese and 46 were Uighurs, along with one minority Hui Muslim. Uighurs say they believe many more of members of their ethnic group died in the government crackdown.
The Uighurs, who number 9 million in Xinjiang, have complained about an influx of Han Chinese and government restrictions on Islam. They accuse the Han of discrimination and the Communist Party of trying to erase their language and culture.
Uighurs communities in former Soviet Central Asia have long alleged that regional governments violate their political and linguistic rights. They blame Beijing, saying the Chinese encourage the local crackdowns.