China's Account of Tiananmen Square Crash Questioned
William Gallo, VOA News
7 November 2013 (6:11AM)
Analysts are questioning China's claim that last week's deadly car crash in Tiananmen Square was the work of an al-Qaida-linked separatist group fighting in northwest China.
Two tourists were killed and scores of bystanders wounded when a car carrying three people rammed past security and burst into flames in the symbolic Beijing square last Monday.
China has called the incident a terrorist attack. It blames the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, or ETIM, an Islamic group said to be fighting for independence in Xinjiang province.
Michael Clarke, a Xinjiang scholar at Australia's Griffith University, said it is possible for the incident to be viewed as an act of terror, in terms of the method of violence used.
But he told VOA the alleged attackers' apparent lack of sophistication calls into question the government's narrative of ETIM involvement.
"The immediate question is whether such a fairly amateur-looking attack can be linked to a supposedly organized terrorist group, which is what China wants the international community to believe by pointing the finger at the East Turkestan Islamic Movement," said Clarke.
China has blamed ETIM for a series of attacks on government targets in Xinjiang in recent years. But many, including Clarke, question the extent to which it still exists in an organized form.
Many say Beijing is exaggerating the ETIM terror threat in order to justify its harsh policies against ethnic minority Uighurs, some of whom complain of government discrimination against their Islamic religion and culture.
Others say key details are missing from the government's account of the Beijing car crash. Henryk Szadziewski, with the Washington-based Uyghur Human Rights Project said, "We really need to have more concrete details from Beijing to call this a terrorist attack. I think we would need to have some overtly stated political motivation, and at the moment, those details are quite sketchy."
Szadziewski agrees that China has been known to exaggerate the role of ETIM in Xinjiang. And he says such terror accusations serve as politically beneficial distractions from Uighur grievances.
Johan Lagerkvist, an East Asia researcher at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said many Uighurs feel they have "no other means to make their voices heard."
"They feel their religion and religious practices and their cultural traditions are under challenge from Chinese-speaking people moving there and they feel they don't have the same rights and social mobility opportunities," he said.
China denies mistreating Uighurs. It said all of the country's ethnic minorities are guaranteed wide-ranging religious and cultural freedoms and benefit from urban development.
Since the Tiananmen incident, Beijing has lashed out at Western analysts for suggesting that repression of Uighurs is responsible for the violence, stating such accusations amount to supporting terrorists.
U.S. officials have been reluctant to support or deny Beijing's assertion that the car crash was an organized act of terrorism.
When pushed on the issue by Foreign Policy on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke said Washington has no independent information, but deplores "any and all acts of terrorism."
He also said the U.S. believes China should be "more respectful of the different cultures, religions, and languages within Xinjiang, and elsewhere in China."
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