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Governor vows to crush ethnic riots

By Mary Kwang, The Straits Times, 19 August 2000

Ili Kazak Prefecture chief's tough stand comes amid Beijing's drive to develop China's west, making social stability crucial for investments

URUMQI -- The governor of the Ili Kazak Autonomous Prefecture in north-western China's Xinjiang region has warned that he would order the same tough enforcement measures against agitators as his predecessors in 1997, if violent clashes were to re-erupt in his jurisdiction.

Mr Alepusbai Rahem, 52, who belongs to the Kazak ethnic minority and assumed office in 1998, stressed this at a briefing of foreign journalists in Yining, the capital of the prefecture, earlier this week.

With the central government embarking on an ambitious drive to develop China's west, social stability is seen to be of paramount importance if Ili Prefecture and Xinjiang are not to lose out to other parts of the country in competing for investments.

Xinjiang, on the border of the Central Asian Muslim states of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, has seen several incidents sparked by members of the Uighur ethnic group, aiming to split the region from China. Ili, which has a population of 3.8 million, two million of whom are Muslim, borders Kazakhstan.

Referring to the bloody clashes which broke out in February 1997 in Yining, that left 10 dead and more than 100 wounded, Mr Alepusbai said: The 1997 incident has already been dealt with. If it were to happen again, I would not hesitate to deal with it in the same way.

He said state security had been endangered during the rampage which claimed the lives of ordinary citizens and police officers.

But, he maintained that the overall situation in Ili had been stable for the duration of the riots.

The incident took place in one or two streets in Yining. It did not have much of an impact on Ili.

Since then, Ili has been very stable. We held a convention of national small- and medium-sized cities here in 1998 and an Ili-Central Asia business forum last year.

Admitting that the separatist movement was still alive, he said: I cannot say that we don't have a single separatist element now. When we find such individuals, we will deal with them.

Mr Alepusbai said the government had held classes on religion and patriotism. What is normal religious activity, what is illegal religious activity, what activity is protected and what is not -- the people have to know, he said, adding that the subversives exploited religion to further their aims.

Stressing the need for ethnic harmony, he said: My biggest concern at the moment is development which is only possible with a stable society.

We have about 800 projects which need to be developed at a total cost of 100 billion yuan. This amount is S$20 billion.

According to reports, in the 1997 clashes, 1,000 members of the Uighur minority rampaged through Yining after a Han Chinese policeman tried to arrest one of their men.