Craft, Currencies, and Ritual Orders in a Northern Thai village

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller is an anthropologist and PhD candidate at the Department of Sociology, Lund University. His PhD project examines the organization of the trade in jade between Northern Myanmar and China, and the role of jade in Chinese cosmology. Henrik has done fieldwork among jade traders and carvers in the town of Ruili on China’s border with Myanmar, as well as interviews with jade traders, carvers, and buyers in Shanghai, Kunming, Mandalay, Myitkina, and Chiang Mai for the project. 

 Henrik will share some of his field notes on the InFocus blog. The first blog post discusses economic cycles in a Northern Thai woodcarving village.

The field notes were taken during the PhD course Reading Craft: Itineraries of Culture, Knowledge and Power in the Global Ecumene, organized by the International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden and Chiang Mai University.


We arrive at the village Ban Tawaii, some 20 kilometres from Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand, at around 9 am. The car drops us off in the main street, which is dominated by shops offering woodcarvings. The woodcarving craft has gained Baan Tawaii some reputation throughout Northern Thailand, especially as the local tambon (an administrative unit usually comprising around 10 villages) has been promoted as a specialized woodcarving area under the government-organized system of OTOP (‘One Tambon, One Product’). The materials for the carvings vary, but prominently include teak and mahogany. The carvers in a workshop that we visited the previous week were reluctant to talk about the sources of the hardwood, but a large part of it is likely smuggled in from neighbouring Myanmar. The illegal trade in hardwood comprises a vast and highly profitable trade in Myanmar’s borderlands; not the least in Ruili, the border town between China’s Yunnan province and Myanmar’s Shan state, where I conduct my fieldwork. Due to its economic profitability and environmental consequences, it is also one of many sources of the ethnic conflicts permeating these borderlands. Also, one of my informants of the Jingpo minority (a Kachin sub-group) in Ruili says that the traditional authority of ritual specialists, dhumsa, is being eroded partly due to the logging of forests, where spirits (nat) reside.

We stock up with a cup of coffee and head towards the house of Baan Tipmanee. We are all wearing white clothing, as is obligatory in the Ganesh ritual we are about to attend. The temperature is already above 30 degrees Celsius, and a light drizzle dampens our clothes. We walk for about ten minutes, until we arrive to a crowd of 70-100 people standing in a line along the road, all of them dressed in white. A loudspeaker transmits the chant of a male voice. Upon our arrival, we are told to line up alongside the other participants and receive a coconut, which we are instructed to hold with two hands underneath our chin, in a manner similar to the Thai wat greeting gesture. Suddenly, people start to smash their coconuts on the concrete road, the sweet-smelling coconut milk splashing around us. I smash my coconut on the road. Klok! I am immediately given one more coconut, which I smash, then another one, and another one. The street is a mess of people dressed in white, splashing coconut milk, and chirps of brown coconut shells whirling through the air.


When all coconuts have been smashed, Salah Kasem enters the street. Dressed in a red garb, he is carrying a small jar containing a red paste. Walking along the line of participants, he draws a vertical line from their forehead to their nose with the red paste. Upon reaching me, he laughs, and draws a red line on my forehead too. He remembers me from last week, when he gave us a guided tour of Baan Tipmanee. The house contains a vast courtyard garden, exhibition room, woodcarving workshop, sales floor, and temple rooms with woodcarvings placed throughout the space. The temple rooms feature pictures of prominent visitors, which include the king of Thailand. A huge woodcarving of Ganesh, Shiva’s son, who is half human, half elephant, is placed centrally in the courtyard on a podium. The deity carries a necklace of flower petals, and is surrounded by a wealth of sacrificial gifts; fresh fruits, flowers, food, and money bills. The other spaces of the house feature woodcarvings in various templates. There are a lot of figurines of Ganesh and of elephants. But also of the last supper of Jesus, and of the smiling, sitting Buddha, Fo, the Bodhisattva Guanyin, and the war god Guang Gong, all of which are commonly worshipped in China. In the exhibition room, these wooden figurines of deities are plastered with money bills from different countries, dominated by Chinese RMB and Thai Baht money notes. The house has a lot of Chinese buyers, who believe their donations will bring them luck. Salah Kasem then uses the donated money to finance this ritual, which he holds once a year.

The house of Baan Tipmanee constitutes a powerful node in a network of woodcarvers from Baan Tawaii and neighbouring villages. A week earlier, we had visited Baan Tawaii’s Buddhist village temple. The wooden temple is built and maintained by donations from village men with certain social positions. One local man can for instance donate a door to the temple. If he is a woodcarver, he will usually make the door by himself. Otherwise, he will hire a local woodcarver to do it. He has a certain liberty regarding the design, but it has to be fit within the overall design of the temple and its components. When woodcarvers carve and donate the temple components by themselves, they will often include their names in the carvings. But even when this is not so, local villagers will know who has donated what. This information is spread throughout the community, and is visibly encapsulated in the styles of the woodcarvings. This way, the temple and its different material components become social confluence points that gather people, while communicating masculine prestige of woodcarvers and donors throughout the village and its surrounding area.

I notice that Salah Kasem is still wearing his large ivory rings. The first time I met him, he immediately said that the rings are made from ‘waste’ ivory material, as if to emphasise his non-complicity in an illegal ivory trade. He said he wears the rings to avoid evil spirits from exiting the wood and entering his body when he is carving wood. This belief hosts a certain analogy to the ways in which Chinese people say that they wear jade jewellery in order to avoid evil forces and spirits entering their body. In both cases, the material – ivory, or jade – functions as a kind of shield blocking the human body from penetration by non-human external forces and agents. Other craftsmen in this area hold a taboo against menstruating women coming near their materials, and in some areas women are not allowed nearby the craftsmen’s workshop at all. But for Salah Kasem, the ivory rings also seem to contain a certain element of self-promotion; they have become part of his image. After all, he is not really a wood carver anymore. He buys and sells woodcarvings made by other carving masters in the area. In some cases, he lends his exhibition room to the carvings of local masters and takes a commission, when they are sold. In other cases, he selects designs and motifs from books, or takes orders on specific designs from customers, and then commissions the work to local master carvers. Salah Kasem’s real talent, it seems to me, consists in his ability to link suppliers and customers by gathering and composing different material components in the impressive frame that is the house of Baan Tipmanee, with himself as its flamboyant face, and probably his wife as the backstage organizer. When I asked about his ivory rings last week, his wife interrupted his explanation, saying that he would have worn the rings no matter whether or not he believed in them shielding him from malignant spirits residing in the wood. He laughed like a schoolboy whose boasting had been called out in the schoolyard.

picture 2

We are aligned into two lines that stretch from the street to the exhibition room inside the courtyard garden, and given a handful of flower petals. A procession walks through the two lines of people from the exhibition room towards the street. Four young women clad in dresses with inlaid gold head the procession. A guy made up as a woman and wearing a golden crown follows. Salah Kasem is the last man in the procession. As the procession walks by, we pour the flower petals over them. They turn left and stop in front of the podium with the Ganesh woodcarving. We follow. People sit down on a red carpet with their legs pointing backwards. It seems that the prohibition against pointing your feet at Buddhist figurines or monks also extends to non-Buddhist figurines. A single red cotton string is unfolded among the audience, who holds the string between their hands, which they form in a wat gesture underneath their chin. The string thus ties all participants together. Salah Kaseem has hired a ritual specialist from neighbouring village, who starts chanting in a microphone. The chanting continues for a very long time. Occasionally, an orchestra joins the chanting. The instruments – wooden xylophones, gongs and drums – and the rhythm remind me of Gamelan-orchestras I have seen in Bali. This is perhaps not so surprising, as the ritual contains several elements of Hinduism, most notably of course the worship of Ganesh. Much more so than in Southern Thailand, Ganesh is an omnipresent figure of worship throughout this region. On his part, Salah Kasem says that Ganesh is the God for craftsmen, as well as for businessmen and for money.

The chanting voice continues, when the orchestra finishes. It just keeps going. The only words I get are “Baan Tipmanee” and “Salah Kasem”, who seem to be praised for arranging the ritual. We have been sitting like this for two hours, and as my legs hurt. Even Carla, a seasoned yoga practitioner, is struggling. We finally give up, and go outside the temple garden to the street, where tables and chairs have been arranged, and food is distributed from large cooking pots. Salah Kaseem is the sponsor. People have come from Baan Tawaii, neighbouring villages, Chiang Mai, and even some Chinese visitors are here. Salah Kaseem says the Chinese participants have been there earlier to buy woodcarvings and have donated money to the woodcarvings inside the exhibition room.

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

The woodcarving of Ganesh with sacrificial gifts

A few weeks later, I go back to Baan Tipmanee, where Salah Kaseem is organizing another ritual. But this time, the participants are restricted to the staff of the house and some local carving suppliers. Food is served for everybody, and there is music. Three silver-grey Nissan pick-ups and a large blue truck have been elaborately decorated with flowers, and red and white fabric. The blue truck carries three woodcarvings of Ganesh sitting on wooden podiums. The two pick-up trucks in the back carry neatly organized flower bouquets and piles of coconut, pineapple, papaya, apple, and watermelon. The pick-up truck in front carries sacrifices, which are set on small trees. Most prominent is the money tree, the branches of which hold money bills on sticks ornamented as flowers. Unlike the wood carvings of Fo, Guanying and Guang Gong inside the exhibition room that are stuck with Chinese money bills, there are only Thai Baht bills on the money trees; green 20 Baht below, and the red 100 Baht on the top of the tree. Next to the money trees are small trees with other sacrificial gifts hanging from the branches. These gifts span an impressive range, including toothpaste, a comb, instant noodles, fish oil, salt, sugar, dried chilli, a notebook, sewing thread, incense, washing detergent, garlic, and talcum powder. The four trucks will drive to a temple in a nearby village to donate the sacrifices as a gift from the house of Baan Tipmanee. It is a Buddhist temple, but it does not seem to be a problem to be arriving there in a procession dominated by Ganesh figurines. Here, Salah Kaseem will give back some of the wealth he has attracted to the house of Baan Tipmanee with the help of Ganesh, and he will pray for luck in the coming year for his house, as well as for the craftsmen supplying him with wood carvings.

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations

A ‘tree’ with instant noodles, dried chili, sewing thread, incense, salt and other temple donations


A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

A ‘tree’ with Thai Baht for temple donation

The two different ritual events seem to support two kinds of cycles. The first cycle ties together carvers, traders, and buyers through the medium of several different monetary currencies. People donate money to the carved wooden figurines that include Jesus, the Fo, Guanyin, Guang Gong commonly worshipped in China, and, most prominently, the Hindu God Ganesh. The monetary donations in the exhibition room manifest the belief in the ability of Ganesh in bringing luck in craftsmanship and in business. The money laid on the woodcarvings includes a variety of bills, including US Dollar, alongside various European, and Asian currencies. But the dominant currencies are Chinese RMB, and Thai Baht, reflecting the largest national bases of customers and worshippers. Salah Kaseem then collects the money bills and uses them to finance the annual Ganesh ritual, which – also quite literally through the string – ties together different people. Seemingly an eclectic gathering of different religious, material, and monetary components, the ritual conjures the local community, while contributing in increasing Salah Kaseem’s prestige and business. This business, in turn, provides an income for woodcarving houses – usually comprised of a master carver and a handful of apprentices – in the region.

The second ritual held a few weeks later constitutes a cycle that is narrower in terms of its social and monetary diversity, but seemingly wider in terms of its temporal extension. The participants are restricted to the employees and core suppliers of carvings of the house of Baan Tipmanee. In the first cycle, money donated by customers is spent on food, decorations, music, and the chanting priest in a singular event of consumption. In the second cycle, money earned through market transactions of woodcarvings are injected into a wider temporal order by being donated to a Buddhist temple, and thus contributes in maintaining throughout time a wider religious order through the temple. In that sense, currencies from donations and market transactions are converted into ritual and market spheres in different ways and temporal stages.

Salah Kaseem himself appears as the confluence point that ties together different social and business relations, masculine prestige, religious components, and flows of woodcarvings and money. Furthermore, in diverting flows between different monetary and religious orders, Salah Kassem upholds money and religion as mutually constituting, rather than mutually exclusive conceptual and effectual orders.

Henrik Kloppenborg Møller
Henrik can be contacted on Email:

Ethnic cleansing and genocidal massacres 65 years ago by Ishtiaq Ahmed

One of the completest cases of ethnic cleansing – that entailed the murder of 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs – took place in 1947 in the Punjab Province of British India. Until now very little research had been conducted on it though in Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi literature the horrors of the partition have figured extensively, mostly in short stories but also in novels and poetry. The trauma of a gory and shattering destruction of the demographic structure and culture in Punjab has never been absent from the public conscience although the generation that went through it is now on the way out. However, once the Punjab was partitioned it was impossible for an Indian citizen to visit the Pakistani Punjab and do research and likewise a Pakistani scholar stood no chance of doing the same in the Indian Punjab. International research on the Punjab partition had also been limited – confined to some cities and districts.

As a Swedish national of Pakistani origin, I did manage to visit both Punjabs and do extensive field research. Therefore now for the first time after 65 years a holistic, detailed and penetrating research on the events of 1947 have been published under the title, The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2012, ISBN 9780199064700, pages 640).  It is theoretically and empirically a very distinctive study, because it seeks to solve the Punjab partition puzzle as part of a general phenomenon that has appeared elsewhere in the world as well.  More than 250 interviews were conducted over a period of 15 years, though the most intense period was 2003-2005 when a very generous research grant from the Swedish Research Council (Vetenskaprådet) enabled me to do field research in both the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs. In some cases I traced people from both sides of the divided Punjab after 50 and more years to check the same incident.

Punjab was partitioned in mid-1947 as part of the overall partition of British India into two independent nations of India and Pakistan. The main party of Indian Muslims, the All-India Muslim League, had argued that the Muslim minority (roughly one-fourth) constituted a separate nation from other communities of India. Therefore they were entitled to a separate state in areas where they were in a majority. This was reluctantly agreed to by the Indian National Congress, the main secular-nationalist party, which was dominated by Hindus. The British, who had decided to withdraw from India by June 1948, also agreed to the partition of India. However, the partition of India was also to include the partition of two Muslim-majority provinces, Bengal and Punjab.

Map of Punjab 1941

The total population of undivided Punjab was nearly 34 million living in 357,692 sq. km. Of it more than 28 million lived in territories directly administered by the British and its territorial expanse was 256,640 sq. km.  The Muslims constituted a slight majority of 53.2%, while Hindus and Sikhs together formed a very large minority. Less than 2% belonged to other religions. In the directly administered British territories the Muslim percentage was slightly higher, 57.1%. The Sikhs, who were a minority of around 14%, were essentially a Punjabi people – their religion and history and most of their community was located in Punjab. On the other hand, Punjabi Hindus and Muslims could link up with their communities in all nooks and corners of India.

The Sikhs were insistent that if India is partitioned on a religious basis then Punjab should also be divided on the same basis. They feared persecution under Muslim rule based on a religious notion of nationhood. The problem was that the Sikhs were not in a majority anywhere in Punjab. They were, however, an important community because they were disproportionately overrepresented in the British Indian Army and were also a propertied community with regard to agricultural land and even business and commerce. When it became clear that India could not remain united because the Muslim League and the Congress would not agree on a mutually acceptable formula the latter threw its full weight behind the Sikh demand for the partition of Punjab. While the western regions had a clear Muslim majority and eastern regions of Punjab a Hindu-Sikh majority the central areas, even though mostly comprising Muslim majority, had substantial Hindu-Sikh minorities and in some districts even majorities.

The book argues that if India had not been partitioned Punjab would also not have been partitioned. However, that did not mean that if India were partitioned then Punjab must also be partitioned. Had the Muslim League and the Sikh leaders agreed to keep Punjab united even if the Punjabi Hindus did not they would have made up such a large majority that Punjab could have remained united. Why could not the Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs agree to that? That is the main puzzle I have tried to solve.  No division of Punjab would have been a satisfactory to all three main communities – Punjabi Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. Moreover, any partition of Punjab would have inevitably divided the Sikhs into the two states. The British governors as well as the chief secretaries, who from 1945-47 were Indians, were warning that Punjab would explode into unprecedented violence if it was partitioned and pleaded for a power-sharing formula that could prevent its division.

Historically Punjab had excellent record of inter-communal relations as Sufi Islam, the Bhakti Movement of Hindus opposed to the caste system and the early Sikh Gurus (spiritual leaders) had over the centuries preached communal harmony. In the 20th century religious revivals took place, which instead of bringing Punjabis closer drove them away from each other on the basis of religious purity as compared to the folky forms of Islam, Hinduism and Sikhism. Yet, from 1923 onwards when the Punjab Unionist Party, headed by Muslim leaders and supported by Hindus and Sikhs, was founded on shared Punjabi values and interests the three communities had managed to live in peace and harmony. Both the Muslim League and the Congress had no major following in Punjab before the 1940s.

Trouble started in Punjab during the 1945-46 election campaign. The Muslim League had to wrest Punjab away from the Punjab Unionist Party and that necessitated portraying it as an agent of anti-Islam forces. Consequently, ‘Islam in danger’ was launched as the battle cry, the Muslim League was projected as the saviour and Pakistan as the utopia where no exploitation would exist, moneylending would be abolished and a model Muslim society based on Islamic law would come into being. Pages 81-106 of my book The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed provide the details. Islamic slogans, of which the most famous, Pakistan ka nara kiya? La Illaha Illillah (What is the slogan of Pakistan? It is that there is no god but God), were used profusely. The pirs (custodians of Sufi shrines) and ulema (Muslim clerics) told the Muslims that voting for the Muslim League would be voting for the Prophet Muhammad; those Muslims who did not do so, their marriages would be annulled, they would be refused an Islamic burial, and so on. The Hindus and Sikhs were told that they would be tried under Islamic law and they would have to bring their cases to mosques. Governor Sir Bertrand Glancy noted on September 13, 1945, “Muslim Leaguers are doing what they can in the way of propaganda conducted on fanatical lines; religious leaders and religious buildings are being used freely in several places for advocating Pakistan and vilifying any who hold opposite view. Communal feel is, I fear, definitely deteriorating. Sikhs are getting definitely nervous about Pakistan, and I think there is no doubt that they will forcibly resist any attempt to include them in a Muslim Raj” (page 84).

He noted on February 2, just days before the elections, “there seems little doubt that the Muslim League, thanks to the ruthless methods by which they have pursued their campaign of ‘Islam in danger’ will considerably increase the number of their seats and unionist representatives will correspondingly decrease” (page 88). The Muslim League swept the reserved Muslim seats. It won 73 seats (later increased to 75) out of 86. Its tally, however, fell short by at least 10 to form the government in the 175-member Punjab Assembly. The Congress swept the general vote getting 50 seats, and the Sikh Panthic parties secured 23 reserved for the Sikhs. The Unionists were reduced to a rump of 18. The rest were reserved seats for the scheduled castes, Christians and Anglo-Indians. A coalition government comprising the Punjab Unionist Party, the Punjab Congress and the Panthic Parties was formed with Khizr Hayat Tiwana as premier. The Muslim League felt deprived of the chance to form the government but it could not produce evidence that it enjoyed a majority in the Punjab Assembly.

Meanwhile, violence elsewhere in India increased sharply in 1946. The Muslim League ordered ‘Direct Action’ or mass agitation in Calcutta in August 1946. It resulted in thousands of deaths. The violence was unleashed by Muslim groups but later the Hindus and Sikhs struck back with equal savagery. Thousands of people were killed. Violence then spread to Bihar where the provincial Congress government was involved in a butchery of Muslims.

Punjab too was heading towards a confrontation and Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain reported that “private communal armies” were being recruited. In December 1946, the Sikhs and Hindus of Hazara district, NWFP, were subjected to unprecedented savagery of Muslim mobs. Thousands fled to Punjab, some got refuge in Rawalpindi, but most went eastwards where Sikhs were in substantial numbers. On January 24, Tiwana ordered police raids on the headquarters of the Punjab Muslim League and the RSS. Muslim League leaders who resisted were arrested. It triggered a mass movement of defiance of authority by Muslim League agitators. Every day Muslims courted arrest and the jails were filled with them. Slogan mongering against Tiwana was conducted in the filthiest of Punjabi abuses and taunts. The agitation also became increasingly violent. Glancy’s successor, Governor Sir Evan Jenkins noted in his report dated February 28, “The Sikhs have been profoundly moved by the obvious desire of the Muslims to seize Punjab for themselves and would not permit them to do so. The agitation has shown Pakistan in all its nakedness and was a fair example of the kind of treatment that the minorities, including the Sikhs, might expect from Muslim extremists”(Page 124). Chief Secretary Akhtar Hussain wrote on March 4, 1947, when direct action was over and an uneasy peace had been established, “Muslims in their stupidity disgraced Sikhs, singled out Sikh policemen for their attacks and brutally murdered a Sikh constable. The effect of this was grave in the extreme and, as has been stated, communal strife between Sikhs and Muslims was almost inevitable if the League movement of defiance had continued” (page 125).

On February 20, 1947, the British government had announced the transfer of power to Indians by June 1948. Although the Muslim League agitation ended on February 26 and all Muslim League detainees released, Premier Tiwana had lost heart because British rule would soon end. He therefore resigned on March 2, 1947, precipitating an acute political crisis. On March 3, Master Tara Singh famously flashed his kirpan (sword) outside the Punjab Assembly, calling for the destruction of the Pakistan idea. That evening, Hindu and Sikh leaders gathered in Lahore and made even more extremist speeches (pages 128-135).

Next day Hindu-Sikh protestors and Muslims clashed in Lahore, the capital of undivided Punjab. The same day in the evening, Sikhs and Muslims clashed in nearby Amritsar. On March 5, violence spread to Multan in south-western Punjab and Rawalpindi in north-western. The same day, Governor Jenkins imposed governor’s rule. Punjab remained under governor’s rule until power was transferred to Indian and Pakistani Punjab administrations on August 15, 1947.

In Multan, the fight was uneven from the first day. There were very few Sikhs and the Hindu minority was also heavily outnumbered. Almost all casualties were those of Hindus and a few Sikhs. The gruesome murder of Seth Kalyan Das, a highly respected gentleman, whom all communities respected, is narrated by old-timer Ataullah Malik (pages 160-161).

In Rawalpindi, Hindu-Sikhs and Muslims clashed on March 5. In the evening of March 6, Muslim mobs in the thousands headed towards Sikh villages in Rawalpindi, Attock and Jhelum districts. Until March 13, they had a free hand to kill, burn, rape, and forcibly convert mainly Sikhs but also Hindus. I have given eyewitness testimony of Muslims, and a Sikh survivor from Thamali, interviewing him in Kapurthala city in the Indian East Punjab (pages 165-193). The pictures of the interviewees are also given.

According to British sources, some 2,000 people were killed in the carnage in the three rural districts. The Sikhs claim 7,000 dead. Jinnah, the leader of the Muslim League and founder of Pakistan, committed a major blunder when he did not issue any condemnation of those atrocities. An exodus of Sikhs took place in the thousands to the eastern districts and Sikh princely states from Rawalpindi, where they narrated their woes, and set up the nucleus of a revenge movement.

The Sikh leaders had been working on some Sikh princes to convince them to try establishing a Sikh State. If India could be partitioned for two nations based on religion, then why could it not into three for the Sikh nation as well? To achieve that, a compact Sikh majority was needed and that could be achieved only by expelling nearly six million Muslims from East Punjab. However, 1947 was too early for such a bid; it emerged in the 1980s as the Khalistan movement.

By May 1947, it dawned upon Jinnah that the Sikhs were not going to join Pakistan. For a while he argued that Punjabis and Bengalis shared a common culture and identity. However, since it contradicted his basic stand that Hindus and Muslims were separate nations who did not share any national character, the discovery that Punjabis (Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs) and Bengalis (Hindus and Muslims) shared the same culture was the weakest argument in his brief for the Two-Nation Theory. He then demanded that a corridor should be provided through more than 1,000 miles of Indian territory to connect East and West Pakistan!

Nevertheless, Viceroy Mountbatten brokered talks between Jinnah and the Sikhs during May 14-16 with a view to keeping the Punjab united. Jinnah offered very generous terms. Hardit Singh Malik who acted as spokesperson of the Sikhs reported the following concluding remarks:

“This put us in an awkward position. We were determined not to accept Pakistan under any circumstances and here was a Muslim leader offering us everything. What to do? Then I had an inspiration and I said, ‘Mr Jinnah, you are being very generous. But, supposing, God forbid, you are no longer there when the time comes to implement your promises?’ His reply was astounding…He said, ‘My friend, my word in Pakistan will be like the word of God. No one will go back on it.’ There was nothing to be said after this and the meeting ended” (page 213).

Meanwhile, the British military had on May 12, 1947 come round to the view that if Pakistan was created it would be good for their interests in South Asia and the Persian Gulf. On page 209, I have quoted verbatim the memorandum the British heads of the three branches of the armed forces and Field Marshal Montgomery prepared in support of the creation of Pakistan.

In any event, on June 3, 1947, the British government announced the Partition Plan. It brought forward the transfer of power date to India and Pakistan to mid-August 1947. On June 23, the Punjab Assembly voted in favour of partitioning Punjab. It was followed by the deliberations of the Punjab Boundary Commission, which culminated in the Radcliffe Award of August 13, which was made public on August 17. In June, the Hindu-Sikh locality of Shahalmi in Lahore was set ablaze. I traced one of the culprits whose confession is given in detail on pages 237-243. Until July, the East Punjab Muslims were not attacked. On August 17, when the Radcliffe Award became public, all hell broke loose on the East Punjab Muslims. In India, scores of studies exist on the suffering of Hindus and Sikhs in what became West Punjab. The fact is that more Muslims were killed in East Punjab than Hindus and Sikhs combined in West Punjab. 500,000-800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs lost their lives altogether. The macabre dance of death that took place in western Punjab until June 1947 was now played out in East Punjab more pitilessly and on a much grander scale.

The evidence is based on heart-wrenching interviews I conducted over a period of 15 years with many Muslims. Pages 411-525 highlight the slaughter of Muslims. The book also documents cases of extreme magnificence as Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs saved lives across the communal divide, sometimes of complete strangers and at great risk to their own lives. Humanity was debased in 1947 but not without outstanding examples of sublimation as well.

At the end of the day, 10 million Punjabis had been driven away from their ancestral abodes: it is the greatest forced migration in modern history. Except for the tiny Malerkotla State, Indian East Punjab was emptied of all Muslims; equally, from the Pakistani West Punjab, Hindus and Sikhs were driven out to the last man almost.

I have developed a theory of ethnic cleansing, which is tested in the Punjab case. It has also served as the theoretical framework to explain and analyse the events that transpired in Punjab in 1947. The theory can be usefully employed to analyse the events of ex-Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Iran and other such cases. Each case has its unique characteristics but they also share some essential common features. Among them the main are the end of a particular type of state system without a power-sharing formula being agreed among apprehensive communities suffering from great anxiety about an uncertain future. When state functionaries assume partisan roles ethnic cleansing and genocide can take place as organized force and terror can be used against the enemy groups.

by Ishtiaq Ahmed

The writer has a PhD from Stockholm University. He is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. His latest publication is: The Punjab Bloodied, Partitioned and Cleansed: Unravelling the 1947 Tragedy through Secret British Reports and First-Person Accounts (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 2012; New Delhi: Rupa Books, 2011). He can be reached at:

So..what is the definition of Genocide, again?

Rohingya: Rohingya is an ethnic minority with dark skin, Muslim beliefs and, for the most part, no citizenship anywhere. Some groups live as sea nomads.  Others live as illegal immigrants in Thailand, India or Bangladesh. Some live in refugee camps different places. Most live in poverty and most live in Burma.


Nobody likes the Rohingya here, though:

Since the group was collectively stripped of citizenship in the 80s by Burmese strongman, Ne Win, they have been systematically persecuted by authorities, and denial of basic human rights, humiliation, slander and ethnically motivated violence are existing circumstances in the life the Rohingya.  This does not differ them from a range of other minorities, especially not in Burma, where the government frequently is at war with rogue militias representing repressed ethnic groups in the country.

But the scale of it does. The above is the preexisting condition. This is the current situation:

In May this year, a young Buddhist girl was raped by three Muslim. It happened in the Northern province of Arakan and that is an absolute disaster. It is horrible to that girl and her family.

But the retaliation… The retaliation for the incident was brutal and frightening:

A mob of Buddhist Burmese attacked a busload of Rohingya people, killing 10 of them. Fighting erupted and spread, and this is what happened over the next few weeks:

The already overwhelmingly larger group of Buddhists was aided in carrying out organized attacks on several Rohingya villages by the military. The attackers rounded up the villagers, put them in vans and took them to concentration camps. Several girls were raped, houses were burned down, people were beaten and tortured.  650 Rohingya is confirmed dead, 50,000 have been displaced and an unknown number is simply: missing.

The main reason why this was frightening was not the violence itself though, although that is certainly frightening enough.

The main reason was that these attacks are largely supported by the Buddhist people of Burma.

Yup. That´s the same dudes that marched so beautifully peaceful in their orange robes in 2008, and for the first time really gave the Burmese people the international focus it needed to make changes. It is the same people who through 20 years waited quietly and took abuse from a self installed government, only to turn out by the thousands at the house of Ang San Suu Kyi to see her released.

Those are the people, who, when asked, cannot see anything particularly wrong with ridding Burma of Rohingya all together. Burmese bloggers have deemed them “thieves, dogs, terrorists and black monsters.” Burmese historians have challenged their “burmeseness” due to their aforementioned black skin, dialect and religion.

Even The Lady is hesitant to denounce the violence, knowing that by doing so she will estrange a large part of her followers.

So congratulations, Burma, on all the positive changes you have achieved in the past year or so. Hooray for brave monks, for the Saffron Revolution, for the free Lady and for finally starting to move towards democracy.   That is fantastic, no one in their right mind will argue otherwise.

By the way, the definition of Genocide, as per the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide is:

“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life, calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; [and] forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

Sound familiar?


Anya Palm,

Freelance journalist and NIAS Associate, Bangkok

A brief report from a Burma visit 13-21 February 2012

Mikael Gravers, Aarhus University

The situation:

On the surface there is a more relaxed mood in Rangoon when I visited Burma. However, all agree that the old totalitarian system is still working. People are still arrested during the night. Thus, we are cautioned that the situation could change rapidly again after the by-elections.

There is a struggle in the government and the parliament between hardliners and reformists. The reformist are the President U Thain Sein and the Speaker of the parliament Thura Shwe Man. Recently they proposed to appoint village head men and other local officials by elections. This was rejected by the lower house. Headmen and other officials are appointed by the military. Thus, it is part of the social security for retired officers.

The president has not been able to stop the fighting in Kachin State. The army is not under government control according to the constitution. Arrests of individuals who criticize the army continues. The leader of the “Saffron Revolution” 2007, U Gambira, who was released recently, is in confrontation with the State Sangha Council who has warned him that he will end up in court accused of illegally entering his monastery, defaming the Sangha elders, and assisting the monk Ashin Pyinna Thiha who was evicted for making a political speech in the office of the National League Democracy (NLD), and for meeting Hilary Clinton. Monks are not allowed to act politically. Thus, freedom is still limited. U Gambira, who was dis-robed by soldiers and sentenced 63 years in jail in 2007, entered his monastery last month. The Maggi  monastery had been sealed by the army after the raid in 2007. U Gambira found all the destruction and blood left from the violent raid. He is now accused of illegally breaking into the monastery.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD have been hackled during their election campaign by the USDP (Union Solidarity Development Party – the ruling party). USDP promised new roads to the voters and tried to impose a ban on the NLD using stadiums for their rallies. She is often prevented from using stadiums for her rallies. In villages near the capital Naypyitaw, officials told villagers that their electricity supply would be cut if they attended an NLD rally with Daw Suu Kyi However, Daw Suu Kyi draws huge crowds on her tour. NLD may take more than half of the 48 seats in the by-elections provided there is no fraud.

Thein Sein focus on the education of the young, and Rangoon University will be reopened in the near future. He said that the young ethnics should replace weapons with computers. One blogger ironically wrote the president and asked for a laptop. The mood is relaxed and cautiously optimistic, although the opposition is rather skeptical about the real intentions of the government. They say that relative freedom is about having the sanctions lifted and otherwise let the army stay in control behind the parliament.

Many international NGOs are ready to let big money flow into development projects and humanitarian aid. This can corrupt more than benefit those who are in need if it is not well prepared and sustainable. There is an over idealized view of the conditions. The old system is still in place and working – or rather not working unless ordered from the top. Bureaucrats are officers – they dare not act without clear orders from the absolute top. And since messages from the top are now blurred for and against, they do nothing! The frame laws are not resulting in specific laws on for example censorships,  the use of ethnic languages in education, investments and financial regulations. There is no rule of law yet.

The Karen:

The focus in following is mainly on the situation in the Karen State as related to the overall political changes. It is based on a very brief visit and the analysis is very preliminary:

The main stakeholders in the conflict(s)are:

  • Tatmadaw, Karen National Union and its Karen National Liberation Army (KNU/KNLA), Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), Border Guard Force (BGF), The Phloung-Sgaw Democratic Party (Karen State), Karen Peace Council (Timothy Laklem), Padoh Aung San and his Peace Force, plus minor groups  of armed persons as well as the government represented by Aung Min (railway minister), Aung Thaung head of Union Solidarity Development Party (the ruling military party) and the final peace negotiations, and Saw Min, PM Karen State.[1]

The ceasefire in Hpa-an in January 2012 between Aung Min and the KNU delegation is obviously only an initial step towards a more realistic agreement. The impression from a two hour discussion with David Tharckabaw (Vice-President, KNU) before we came to Burma is that the KNU leadership is suspecting a Burmese trap. Tharckabaw and the hardliners of KNU seems to have rejected the agreement and there is a deep split within the KNU. Tharckabaw talked about the Karen being cheated so often by ‘ Bamah’ (ethnic Burmans). He also rejected the ‘developmentalism’ of the government. Development in their version, he said, means to take the resources from the Karen State and not real development for the Karen population. He claimed this ‘developmentalism’ is supported by Germany and other EU countries. He also blamed Harn Yawnghwe and the Ethnic Nationalities Council (ENC) of supporting this line.[2] This indicates that there is a split among the pan-ethnic organizations, although they seem to agree on a federal constitution. Tharckabaw is in the leadership of United Nationalities Federal Council, another pan-ethnic organization of the armed ethic groups. He dislikes ENC and Harn. But he seems to support Daw Suu Kyi’s strategy: ‘She won’t betray the trust of her people’.

To add to the complexity of the situation, the Karen Peace Council (KPC) under former KNU General Htein Maung and Dr. Timothy Laklem signed a peace agreement in Naypyitaw (7th. February) with minister Aung Thaung and the Union-level peace negotiating team.[3] He arranged a meeting with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi 10th. February to the deep frustration of the KNU and many Karen in Rangoon, because he posed as the front representative of the Karen. Aung Thaung thus undermined the efforts of Aung Min who negotiated with the KNU. It is also a clear sign that The NLD and Daw Suu Kyi need much more information about the ethnic situation, its complex political structure and its many actors. Lack of precise information on the ethnic situation can easily generate more mistrust. Many Karen still generalize in their mistrust towards all Bamah. Daw  Suu Kyi again referred to ‘The Spirit of Panglong’ during her tour in the Kachin State. This creates hope – but Panglong was a weak and incomplete agreement and there is a need for a specific political program.

The day after we left – 22nd. of February -, DKBA under commanders Saw Lah Pwe and Po Bi near Mying Gyi Ngu were attacked by the BGF – probably the group  commanded by Thong Hlaing. BGF took some of DKBA’s position and weapons. This group infringes upon the supporters of U Thuzana and does not respect the monk.[4] They drink, eat meat harass his followers and take taxes along U Thuzana’s new highway built with donations from large Thai food companies. U Thuzana had managed to establish some sort of a civil administration via his monks and lay followers. This structure could be dismantled by the BGF and the army if there is no general agreement between all groups.

In Hpa-an, the Phloung-Sgaw Democratic party left an impression of being a serious and concerned player. They have submitted questions from a Karen delegation (Kawkareik) to the local Hlutaw (parliament) about landmines and their removal. The party has a mentor (founder?), the monk Ashin Pyinya Thami, (Taungkalae) who is Mon-Chinese. He has been able to obtain large donations for a college, although it is not yet completed. He delivered a strong criticism of the generals, the NLD – “she wants to ‘burmanize’ the ethnic groups”. “She is like her father.” U Thuzana was dismissed: “he only collects money (and built zedis) for himself – proud of himself”- (It sounds as jealousy). “The 2007 monks demonstrations was a Bahma trick”, he said. Pyianya Thami is said to have direct line to Than Shwe’s wife who has supported him. In my analysis, he is a charismatic empire builder, but not a reliable political player.

Further, the Hpa-an Karen Student Association represents an important democratic segment. The town is however totally dominated by the 22nd. light infantry division and the BGF, although most of the mentioned groups including the NLD have a presence in Hpa-an.

Land confiscation is a huge problem in the Karen State (as elsewhere). The Karen complained that they also lost their commons for grazing animals, collecting firewood and leafs for thatching. This is probably the most urgent problem to deal with. A law is badly needed. Most of the confiscated land is now huge rubber plantations.

The ceasefire agreement between KNU delegation and Aung Min in Hpa-an was rejected by the KNU leadership. A new meeting took place in Chiang Mai, 2nd March. Both sides agreed to meet in April. Significantly, the government delegation included business people. This underlines the KNU fear that ceasefire is mostly about quick economic deals more than genuine peace and reconciliation.

The PM of the Karen State Hlutaw, Saw Min (a former officer), seems to be very conservative and a military man. He is seen as one who supports the BFG.

For a future peace to be established, an initial reduction of the army as well as a repositioning of all armed groups within a few scheduled and monitored areas is necessary!

Concluding remarks:

  • Lack of trust is a main problem, I believe, in all camps. It is without meaning if the government only negotiates with the KNU – all groups should come to the table and the agreement must be detailed – especially in relation to monitoring and conflict resolution if or rather when future disagreements erupt. In the situation, a neutral facilitator could be an idea if all agree on the selected persons/organization.
  • Trust and reconciliation work together. There should be a forum where the various Karen groups, their leaders/commanders could meet regularly with government representatives and local army officers and exchange information, share news and have informal discussions. This is a way of establishing mutual knowledge, recognition and trust. It takes time – long time!
  • Soldiers need a livelihood after a peace. But to offer money in order to persuade them to give up their weapons is to ignore the core political reasons to take up arms in the first place. Here is a huge task for NGOs to reintegrate thousands of fighters( this is closely related to de-mining programs).
  • The NLD need a detailed political assessment and project for the ethnic case. It could be an idea to have an All Burma Conference, round table, with all political parties, the government and all ethnic groups/organizations. It is a huge task to organize such a meeting. But the complexity needs to be addressed.

[1] KNU is the main Karen organization, largely Christian dominated; DKBA the Buddhist Karen in the Karen State, followers of the  monk U Thuzana; DKBA broke away from the KNU in 1994 but they work together now. BGF is the part of DKBA who joined the army in 2010. The other minor groups are small and are splinter groups follwing one leading person.

[2] ENC is a pan-ethnic organization working for a federate state in Burma. Harn Yawnghwe is the head of the Burma office in the EU. He supported the National Democratic Front party who broke out of the NLA and joined the elctions in 2010. Thus he is not popular with the NLD or the KNU.

[3] He is a hardliner and said to be the organizer of the violent attack on Daw Suu Kyi in 2004. He will have the final word in future peace agreements, as far as we understand.

[4] U Thuzana is a highly respected Karen monk who uses large donations (from Burma and Thailand) to built not only pagodas but schools clinics and roads in the Karen state

Some thoughts about the background to the recent events in Urumchi from a sociolinguist’s point of view

Joakim Enwall Associate Professor Chinese Language and Culture Department of Linguistics and Philology Uppsala University

July 12, 2009


The history of Xinjiang is characterised by its position as a transit area for peoples, languages, arts, religions and commercial products. Drastic changes have occurred at many times in its history, as one constellation of the above-mentioned factors has superseded another, but most of these processes of change have been relatively drawn out, often occurring in a time span of several hundred years. Although China has had strong influence in the area since the centuries preceding the Common Era, at least during quite long periods, it is only after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China that this influence has manifested itself in a massive immigration of Han Chinese into the area.

Historical and political overview

In the last years of the 18th century the Eastern Turkestan area was incorporated into the Qing Empire under the name of Xinjiang or “New Dominion”. This was part of a policy of expanding the empire to the areas, which had at some point in history been part of China. The notion of being part of the Middle Kingdom was, however, rather vague, and referred both to areas having been under tight Chinese political and economic control and to former tributary states. Qing officials or ambans were instituted in Xinjiang, and by use of military force the Chinese managed to keep the area as a part of China in spite of several severe cases of rebellion against the Chinese rulers. During the last decades of the 19th century the surrounding powers, Great Britain in India and Russia, initiated political manipulations to increase their respective influence in the area, a process which later became known as the Great Game. The Chinese Empire was getting weaker and the Russian interests temporarily gained the upper hand in Xinjiang.

The linguistic situation around 1900

In the Qing administration there were two official languages, Manchu and Chinese, but Xinjiang was not an area well integrated into the ordinary administrative structure. It was more of a strategic colonial rule, like in Tibet, and the linguistic policies of the empire had but peripheral influence on the majority of the population. In the same way as in most parts of Central Asia, Persian was a widespread language both in the field of administration, in commerce and in literature, and in the religious sphere Arabic played an important rule. Uyghur – at that time not yet defined as Uyghur – was, however, the sole language of communication for the vast majority of the population.

During the first decades of the 20th century the bulk of the literature in Uyghur consisted of hand copied manuscripts and a few lithographed books, produced in Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Apart from works related to Islam and moral themes, there was a great number of romantic and heroic tales, often modelled on Persian originals (Jarring 1979). Only a minority of the population was literate, but there was also a strong tradition of oral literature, which before 1949 was passed on from generation to generation. Nowadays, this tradition is virtually extinct.

The Uyghur revival

The traditional way for a person later defined as an Uyghur to define himself was “Turk” or, alternatively, as originating from one of the major oases “qäshqärliq”, “khotänlik” or “turpanlik”. At a conference held in the 1920s in Almaty it was decided that the term Uyghur be reintroduced for designating the people believed to be the offspring of the Uyghurs who established their empire in western Mongolia in the 8th century. This usage spread to Xinjiang in the 1930s.

The orthography was standardised by Mr. G. Ahlbert of the Swedish Mission Press in his spellingbook for the language of the six cities, published by the Swedish Mission Press in Kashgar in 1929. A few years later the strict orthographic principles and particularly the rules for spelling Arabic loanwords as well as the ways of rendering the Uyghur vowels varied considerably between the authors and publishers of Uyghur language texts.


The demographic changes 1950-1980

According to the census of 1953, two years after Xinjiang was incorporated into the People’s Republic, the number of Uyghurs was 3.6 million, the Han Chinese numbered 300.000 and the other ethnic groups approximately 930.000, of which the Kazak constituted two thirds. For many of the Kazak and Kirghiz, Uyghur was the lingua franca, and it may well be concluded that the use of Chinese was limited to provincial administration and military affairs. Other contacts, including commercial and technical, had been more focused on the Soviet Union than on China proper, and this is clearly reflected in the amount of Russian loanwords in Uyghur as compared to that of Chinese loanwords.

Starting in the early 1950s, large groups of Chinese farmers, demobilised military personnel and intellectuals were sent to Xinjiang in order to construct the new society. The peasants and former soldiers were organised in the bingtuan-system, or para-military colonies, which reminds of the tuntian-system, introduced to Xinjiang by the Chinese 2000 years earlier. These bingtuan-units were established as self-sustaining militia groups around the Taklamakan desert, and apart from being in charge of developing cotton farming by using the water of the Tarim River for irrigation, they were also to serve as a deterring force against possible rebellions among the minority population. Large groups of military personnel were sent into the area, especially after the break up between China and the Soviet Union, and many of them stayed on after their military tasks were completed. The third group, the intellectuals, took charge of the authorities and the schools, and thereby exerted a large impact on the cultural development of Xinjiang. During the Cultural Revolution, red guards entered the area and began propagating the new rules for societal life, which included drastic changes as an imposed pig raising policy for the Muslims. The results of this immigration can be seen in the 1982 census. The number of Uyghurs had increased to 5.9 million, an increase of 63%, while the Han Chinese population reached 5.3 million, thus an increase of 1660% in 29 years. The other ethnic groups showed an increase of some 96%, amounting to a total of approximately 1.8 million in 1982. This process has since then slowed down in percentages, but not in actual numbers of people. A further complicating factor is the large group of retired intellectuals, consisting both of those who were originally sent in the 1950s for developing the area, and of those exiled after the anti-Rightist campaign of 1958 and during the Cultural Revolution. After 1979 many of these chose the option to return to China proper, and also in some cases to resume their original positions at institutions of higher learning and in administration. At the same time, in connection with the abolishment of the People’s Communes and the reorganisation of state enterprises, huge groups of young people became out of work, and some of these found their way to Xinjiang.

Early Chinese minority language policies

Due to the semi-independent status of Xinjiang from the fall of the Qing dynasty until the establishment of the People’s Republic of China minority language policies was not a major concern of the Chinese authorities in Xinjiang. It was more of a struggle for keeping the province within the country and not allowing either the British or the Russians t
o take over. After 1949 the Chinese communists rapidly brought Xinjiang back into the central administration, after it had been semi-independent under the rule of Chinese governors since 1911.

Since the beginning of the 1950s small scale experiments with Cyrillic-based script for the minorities in Xinjiang were carried out. In the Soviet Union the larger ethnic minority groups of Xinjiang were also represented, including the Uyghurs, and in the 1940s Cyrillic-based orthographies for these languages had been devised. The use of Cyrillic in Xinjiang would as well facilitate cross-border contacts within these ethnic groups, but with the deteriorating atmosphere between China and the Soviet Union, such contacts were no longer seen a desirable, but as harmful. In 1958 the Committee for Writing Reform was set up and in 1959 a proposal was put forward. The minority language authorities launched a Latin-based system for Uyghur with 33 letters. Its origins are, however, to be sought in the pre-1958 minority language work, as the orthography contains letters and diacritics which are not present in the 1958 version of the Hanyu Pinyin scheme. Starting from the early 1950s, hundreds of scholars and field-workers had been engaged in a huge project of devising and reforming the writing systems of the ethnic minority groups in China. During the first years of this work, no strict common principles were applied for the choice of possible graphemes, and several proposed orthographies for various languages contained both Latin letters, Cyrillic letters and newly invented graphemes. The latter were mainly borrowed from the Latin-based orthographies used for minority languages in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1958 the People’s Congress of China approved the Hanyu Pinyin Scheme as the official transcription system for Chinese, and consequently the orthographies for minority language should follow the same spelling principles and contain the same graphemes. However, for Uyghur no such change was carried out and Arabic writing remained in use until the mid-1960s, when the Latin-based yengi yezik was introduced.

In 1958, the anti-Rightist campaign was launched, and as minority languages were generally considered a bourgeois remnant in the Chinese society, most of the work which had been carried out in the 1950s was seen as useless at best, and many collections of folk literature were destroyed. Evening courses for making the peasants literate in their own language were also cancelled. From 1958-1962 between 60,000 and 120,000 Uyghurs fled from Xinjiang to the Soviet Union. After the famine of the early 1960s a few years of relative stability followed, and during this time a few publications in Uyghur appeared. In 1966, however, the Cultural Revolution was launched, and most of the minority intellectuals who had survived the establishment of the People’s Republic and the anti-Rightist campaign, were then purged. Unlike many minority languages, the Uyghur language had been kept as an official language in Xinjiang, although only few publications appeared during the years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). Minority languages were used almost exclusively for printing translations of works by Chairman Mao and other political publications.

At school, however, both the Arabic script and the yengi yezik were used in parallel, but in 1976 the Revolutionary Committee of Xinjiang decided to make the yengi yezik the only official script for Uyghur. According to information received by Gunnar Jarring in 1978, over half of the population used the yengi yezik at that time, and all official publications appeared in that script (Jarring 1979). Although this new orthography never received wide-spread support it was taught at school until the mid-80s, and it is still used in some publications as an “auxiliary transcription system”, a face saving device of the Chinese authorities. After the reintroduction of the Perso-Arabic script what resulted from the experiment with yengi yezik was virtually a whole lost generation for literacy in Uyghur, as only a part of those who learnt yengi yezik at school later learnt the Perso-Arabic script.

Socio-economic changes after 1980

The political reforms of the early 1980s were followed by radical economic reforms in the mid-80s. Earlier redistribution systems were abolished according to the policy that some areas should become rich first and thereby trigger economic development in the poorer areas. The immediate consequence was an increasing poverty in the areas situated far away from the coast and the big cities, and Xinjiang was one of the regions worst hit by this reform. The local authorities dealing with minority language works were supposed to finance their activities on local revenue, which was scarce or non-existent.

At the same time, the petroleum industry in Xinjiang developed rapidly and this lead to an influx of Chinese workers for the oil wells in the Taklamakan desert. As the oil companies had no trust in the Uyghur population they exclusively employed Han Chinese from the Inland provinces. With increasing unemployment in China a so-called floating, i.e. unregistered, population appeared, and at present its size is estimated to over 150 million. Some of these have sought luck in China’s minority areas, including Xinjiang, and after the resettlement program in connection with the Three Gorges Project, the number of Han Chinese coming to Xinjiang is on the raise. They settle mainly in the Bayangol prefecture, the Urumchi area, and in Dzungaria.

Revival of minority language work

After the third plenary session of the 11th Party Congress in 1979, the former minority policies in China were to be revived, much according to the principles of the early- and mid-1950s.

In 1984 the Arabic-script-based system was reintroduced, and after the orthographic reforms of 1985 it remains unchanged to this day.

The influence of Russian is still very much present in Uyghur and from the principles of coining new words it can be seen that the loanwords from Russian have been well integrated into Uyghur.

Tightening up – new policies after 1994

In the 1980s the Chinese way of living gained ground in Xinjiang and in cities like Urumchi, Kashgar and Khotan typical phenomena of Chinese society like pop music, Karaoke bars, beer drinking and a focus on making money had a heavy impact on the lives of young Uyghurs. There was also an increased interest in mastering the Chinese language, which was a necessary tool for gaining access to the new cultural and societal phenomena. This inevitably led to a clash with traditional values of the Uyghur society, but many older people also saw this as an inevitable consequence of modernity. Nonetheless, since the mid-80s, some radical Islamist groups were formed, and some even went for military training in Afghanistan. Upon their return they initiated sabotage activities and even outright rebellions, albeit on a small scale. Nonetheless, the support for these activities seems to have been quite small among Uyghurs in general. As the Chinese state reacted to these terrorist activities, their measures were over-dimensioned for the purposes they wanted to achieve. After the meeting of the Ethnic Affairs Commission in December 1994, measures like closing down madrasas and strict control of Friday prayer contents made the general opinion shift. The young people who had earlier wholeheartedly embraced the Chinese culture turned to Islam, stopped frequenting Chinese bars and dance halls and started attending the prayers in the mosques. On this, the Chinese reacted with even stronger measures against Islam, and the gap between the two halves of the population was further widened.

Many educated Chinese do not any more feel safe in the area, and as
they can usually get work in China proper they leave the area. This, however, does not lead to a decrease of the Chinese population, as their numbers are well compensated through the influx of non-educated Chinese, who cannot find jobs in China proper.

The response of the Uyghur intellectuals has more often than not been a reinterpretation of the history of Xinjiang (Gladney, 1998). The Uyghurs are seen as the original inhabitants of the area as early as the first centuries BC and as little knowledge about the ancient ethnic setting is available in contemporary Xinjiang, this myth spreads unchallenged. It has also made the local authorities more sensitive about research on the pre-Uyghur ethnic groups of Xinjiang, as the findings could “lead to ethnic contradictions” (yinqi minzu maodun). As long as the present ethnic setting is not challenged, the authorities generally tolerate publications in this field. Sometimes, however, the local government has prohibited historical works in this genre, as for example the famous three books “üch kitap” by Torghun Almas, which were actually published during the years of relative opening up prior to 1989, but later collected and burnt. These books dealt with Uyghur history, Uyghur literature and the history of the Huns respectively. After the prohibition all Uyghur intellectuals were urged to criticise these books in articles in Uyghur newspapers and journals in order to reach the Uyghur readers as well.

The publication activities in Uyghur have, however, increased during the 1990s, though only in the field of strictly controlled works. Apart from the Uyghur Publishing House in Kashgar, books in Uyghur are published by nine publishing houses in Xinjiang as well as by the Nationalities Publishing House in Peking. The total number of titles in Uyghur for the year 1998 was approximately 700 according to the provincial authorities, but at the Uyghur Publishing House in Kashgar the number 876 was given for that publishing house only, with an average edition of 5000. Out of these 70% were original works in Uyghur and 30% translations, mainly from Chinese.

In higher education, this is even more evident, where only few subjects, like the minority language itself, and the minority literature itself are taught in the minority language. The system of schooling of ethnic minority children outside the autonomous regions was introduced in 1987, with the Beijing Tibet High School. The students are recruited mainly from poor families and the students are given the preferential treatment of free high school education. A similar system with schools in twelve Chinese cities for Uyghur children was established in 1997. This kind of system has earlier proven most efficient in training cadres on higher level at the Central Institute for Nationalities (now renamed Central University of Nationalities) in Beijing. Interesting historical parallels are also to be found in the devshirme system for the dhimmi groups in Ottoman times and in the special boarding schools for American Indians in the US and for the Saami in Sweden.

Since the establishment of the Xinjiang classes, the number has increased from 12 to 27, and the total enrolment is over 5000 (Xinjiang ribao wang, 2007-02-14). For the future development, there are plans to enlarge the number of bilingual preschools, and the target is set at 258,000 Xinjiang ethnic minority preschoolers in 2010 (Renmin ribao haiwaiban: 2006-10-12). A further result is that the Uyghur teachers also have to pass exams in Chinese in order to keep their employment at the schools (Xinjiang ribao wang: 2006-07-11).

Concluding remarks

The present situation is characterised by an intensified conflict and a societal division between Han Chinese and Uyghurs, which in many ways reminds of a traditional colonial setting, and which contains many political complications. Unless a significant change is brought about regarding the economic, religious and cultural conditions of the Uyghurs, this tense situation is not likely to change, and hard-core groups will probably gain further support among the Uyghur population. The recent events show that the situation is already on the point of boiling over and it seems unlikely the measures implemented by the authorities will decrease the tension between the two major population groups, the Uyghurs and the Han Chinese, in Xinjiang.


Dillon, Michael. 1995. Xinjiang: Ethnicity, Separatism and Control in Chinese Central Asia. Durham East Asian papers, 1. Durham: Department of East Asian Studies, University of Durham.

Dreyer, June Teufel. 1976. China‘s Forty Millions: Minority Nationalities and National Integration in the People’s Republic of China. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Enwall, Joakim. 1999. “Towards a Sociolinguistic History of Sinkiang”. Return to the Silk Routes: Current Scandinavian Research on Central Asia. Edited by Mirja Juntunen & Birgit N. Schlyter. London: Kegan Paul International, pp. 119-131.

Gladney, Dru S. 1998. “Internal Colonialism and the Uyghur Nationality: Chinese Nationalism and its Subaltern Subjects”. Cemoti – Cahiers d’études sur la Méditerranée orientale et le Monde Turco-iranien, no 25, pp. 47-63.

Jarring, Gunnar. 1979. Åter till Kashgar: Memoarer i nuet. Stockholm: Bonniers.

—-. 1991. Prints from Kashghar: The Printing-office of the Swedish Mission in Eastern Turkestan. History and Production with an Attempt at a Bibliography. Stockholm: Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul. Transactions, vol. 3.

Mackerras, Colin. 1994. China’s Minorities: Integration and Modernization in the Twentieth Century. Hong Kong: Oxford University Press.

Renmin ribao haiwaiban [People’s Daily, Overseas Edition], 2006-10-10. “Xinjiang ‘shuangyu’ jiaoyu cong wawa zhuaqi” [Xinjiang’s bilingual education starts with small children].

Rudelson, Justin Jon. 1997. Oasis Identities: Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road. New York: Columbia University Press.

Xinjiang ribao wang [Xinjiang Daily Net], 2006-07-11. “Atushi xingqi xue Hanyu re” [Artush excited by Chinese language studying fever].

Xinjiang ribao wang [Xinjiang Daily Net], 2007-02-14. “Xinjiang jinnian jiang you 5000 xuesheng fu neidi gaozhong jiuxue”.

Europe and the suffering people of Burma/Myanmar

Timo Kivimäki, Senior Researcher NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

The fate of the Rohingya people reverted our attention to the suffering of the people of Burma/Myanmar – a country whose name cannot even be agreed upon. Yet, initiatives to relieve the situation of the people would require cooperation, not just arguments and working against each other. Europe, in order to participate in this, would need a new, more sophisticated strategy towards Burma/Myanmar. Last week, an excellent blog entry by Martin Gemzell, Asia Program Manager of Olof Palme International Center, drew a convincing picture of the complicity of the military government in the suffering of the Burmese people. Yet the suffering is also linked to structures, prejudice and acts of broader circles. Recently, I spent a week in the Rakhine State – in the biggest concentration of the Rohingya people – and learned that discrimination against the Rohingya is not only a monopoly of the government. Most local Rakhine and Chin people do not accept the justification of Rohingya existence in the country and instead used the government’s registration of the Rohingya for the constitutional referendum as clear proof of the government’s dishonesty in regards to the referendum. As one Rakhine engineer stated, “naturally they falsified the vote, because they even registered the Muslims (the word identifying the collective entity of the Rohingya people is generally not used in Rakhine State, except for Rohingyas themselves) even though they have no right here, and even though they are not Myanmar people.” The exiled democratic government of Burma, (NCGUB) recently issued a statement on the Rohingya people, and also failed to recognize the citizenship of the Rohingya people. The problem of the suffering of the people is more comprehensive than just a matter of the political system. We Europeans who would like to be helpful should not only focus on the institutional macro structures of power if we want to be useful for change for the better. By this I do not mean we should not also focus on opportunities to contribute to change of the political system, but simply that the policy agenda or development and wellbeing cannot be a hostage of a regime change.  Much can already be done now. We do not need to wait for a fundamental change before we can act.

To contribute to steps to the right direction, Europe could try to work on a more diversified and complicated strategy regarding Burma/Myanmar. During the transition of the political system, one should not ignore opportunities to contribute to democratic developments and to a more peaceful future of the country. The generational change in the military leadership, the transition to a constitutional system with some sort of parliamentary, multi-party political space, and the continuing negotiation on changes to the constitution, all offer entry points for positive European contribution. A more sophisticated agenda could start with reacting differently to different initiatives of the government. When the government ignored the suffering of its people after the late spring cyclone in the country, angry criticism was in place. However, when the government developed its openness towards international cooperation for the relief of the people, Europe should have reacted with open public recognition. Furthermore, a more sophisticated strategy should not treat everybody in the government similarly. There has been suggestion of collaborating with the middle-rank administration (not the privileged elite) on issues of human security. While running the risk of supporting elements of the undemocratic political system, this could also represent the kind of sophisticated strategy that could play up more democratic and progressive people in the government and agendas that could help the situation of the people instead of just focusing on paranoid agendas of state security.

With a better political system as an instrument of the people rather than that of only the elite, Burma/Myanmar will be able to help itself in accelerating development and reducing poverty. But all this should not ignore opportunities for Europe to contribute to the alleviation of the suffering in a more direct manner. The total concentration of the Myanmar military government on security of the state system and the total concentration of Europeans on changing that system has resulted in the loss of many opportunities to focus on policies that could directly help people with their difficulties. People in the country need humanitarian assistance, and there is widening space for offering that assistance in a responsible manner. This widening space for assistance should be utilized as an independent parallel track to the all-politicizing track that aim for democratization.

Furthermore, there are options to encourage economic development that are nevertheless politically responsible. Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation, Ulla Tørnæs recently suggested promoting tourism in the country as a strategy of increasing people-to-people interaction. Democratic Burma lobbyists have been hesitant as this could also support the repressive government. A more sophisticated strategy could involve a process of tourism certification, which could identify morally responsible tourism options in the country. Hotels, travel packages and transportation options that would be not only environmentally certified, but which could also ensure that a maximum share of tourist spending would end up in the pockets of the local people presents a middle way.

A more flexible and sophisticated strategy from Europe for Burma/Myanmar would, in short, involve identifying opportunities to work on humanitarian and development issues despite the government tactics that are not approved of. At the same time, it would mean a flexible strategy of supporting the progressive initiatives and people in the government and opposing the less progressive people and projects. For this, Europe would need better links and dialogue all the way to the top. Dialogue and communication should not be seen as a reward the government has to earn. Europe should be prepared to communicate publicly and confidentially.  On the official track, Europe would need a strategy to gradually increase involvement that does not build up the government, eventually leading to the establishment of a Commission delegation in Yangon. On the unofficial track, better communication would require a strategy of utilizing eminent Europeans for the engagement of the top levels of Myanmar government. Even though Burma/Myanmar is far away, the consequences of our strategies should serve its citizens. Blunt strategic instruments and disregard for the consequences of our demonstrative actions is no longer acceptable in face of the human suffering in this poor country.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang: Causes of resistance and perspectives for future unrest (updated version)

Henriette Kristensen MA Student, Institute of Political Science, Aarhus university and NIAS research assistant (

. .


September 19, 2000


Since the beginning of the 1990s riots and unrest staged by Uyghurs, the largest Muslim minority in China’s far northwestern province, Xinjiang, to protest against Chinese rule have gained increased attention. In 1997 the unrest even spread to the capital Beijing, where a bus explosion staged by Uyghurs killed two and injured at least a handful people, andless than a week before the Olympics the police in Kashgar, a historical centre of Uyghur resistance in Xinjiang, was attacked. Following 9/11 China started to refer to the Uyghurs as “terrorists”, and when preparing for the Olympics Beijing identified “separatists” pushing for independence of Xinjiang as the main threat to the Games. The question is however why Uyghurs in Xinjiang oppose Chinese rule, and what their capacity for taking actions against the Chinese authorities in the future is?

1) Causes of resistance: Culture, economy and politics

The Uyghurs today account for almost half of Xinjiang’s population. Despite of this, Han Chinese or Uyghurs loyal to Beijing largely control Xinjiang, and Uyghurs perceive themselves as culturally, economically and politically marginalized. This seems to be the primary sources of the Uyghur’s dissatisfaction with Chinese rule.

The Chinese authorities have taken measures to assimilate Uyghur culture in Xinjiang, most notably Uyghur religious traditions and language. Uyghurs are Sunni Muslims and they have strong traditions for the mystical branch of Islam, Sufism. Generally, the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, but since the 1980s Xinjang has experienced an Islamic revival. This revival has collided with an intensified crackdown from the Chinese authorities on Muslims in Xinjiang, as they have strengthened official control over the Islamic clergy (for example through training and reeducation campaigns), enforced registration of religious institutions, closed down mosques, banned certain religious practices and arrested religious leaders accused of being “unpatriotic” and “subversive”. A vital part of this crackdown has been the “Strike Hard” campaign (yanda) launched nation-wide from 1996, and in Xinjiang directed against “the three forces” (separatists, terrorists, and religious extremists). To counter the influence of Uyghur cultural traditions in Xinjiang, Beijing has among others promoted a state-controlled version of Islam in the province, e.g. by requiring that the Islamic clergy in major mosques are state-employees and controlling Islamic education. Linguistically the Uyghurs also differ significantly from the Han Chinese, as the Uyghur language belongs to the Turkic family and is closely related to Uzbek. At first glance Beijing takes a conciliatory stance towards the Uyghur language – for example it is adopted as an official language in Xinjiang, and publication of nationality books, nationality broadcasting etc. is supported by law. In reality however, the Chinese authorities have strived to promote Mandarin (Putonghua). An example of this is the education system, where universities in Xinjiang since 2002 have been required to teach all courses except language and culture classes exclusively in Putonghua. In 2004 measures were taken to introduce similar polices in elementary and middle schools. Beijing has also through frequent language reforms impacted sentiments of a common Turkic identity among the Uyghurs. On the one hand, the revival of an Arabic-based script in Xinjiang in the 1980s strengthened feelings of a common Uyghur identity. On the other hand, the frequent language reforms have introduced divisions between different generations of Uyghurs, and linguistically alienated the Uyghurs from the Central Asian states, where a Latin-based script has generally replaced the modified Cyrillic alphabet after independence.

Uyghurs in Xinjiang are also generally less well-off than Han in the province. Traditionally, Xinjiang has been one of the least developed regions in China, but since the 1990s massive investments have been channeled into the province – a trend that accelerated in 2000 when the campaign to “Open Up the West” (xibu da kaifa) was launched. The investments have however, mainly benefited the Han population in Xinjiang, not the Uyghurs, as the investment strategy has focused on extracting Xinjiang’s large reserves of natural- and mineral resources, promoting Xinjiang as a key producer of cotton and improving the region’s poor transportation network. This economic strategy has not only resulted in an influx of Han Chinese into Xinjiang (in 1949 approximately 6% of Xinjiang’s population was Han Chinese, today the number is around 40%), but has also proved disadvantageous for the Uyghurs. Firstly, economic disparities between Han Chinese and Uyghurs in Xinjiang are significant, as Han Chinese populate the urbanized relatively well-off northern Xinjiang, whereas the rural southern Xinjiang where most of the Uyghurs live is less well-off. One explanation for this is that investments are primarily allocated to e.g. the oil and gas industry owned by Han Chinese and mainly employing Han Chinese. Secondly, the Uyghurs feel “exploited” by Beijing, as the state gets most of the revenues from Xinjiang’s vast energy reserves, and its oil and gas is consumed by China’s coastal cities. Thirdly, Beijing has a tight control of Xinjiang’s economy through e.g. the energy sector and the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC) – a Han structure formally established in 1954 to absorb demobilized members of Guomindang and People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Today many Han Chinese in the province are members of XPCC, and the institution – which is directly under control of the State Council – has substantial influence over Xinjiang’s economy.

Finally, Uyghurs perceive themselves as being politically marginalized. Beijing has given preferences to minorities when filling state leadership positions in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs in these positions (for example the current Xinjiang chairman Nur Bekri and his predecessor Ismail Tiliwaldi) are however often trained in Han Chinese institutions, and their success depends on support from prominent Han leaders. In addition, the power center in Chinese politics – the Chinese Communist Party – has not introduced preferential policies for minorities, and even though the situation has improved, Uyghurs are underrepresented in the Communist Party. This is illustrated by the fact that the de facto leader of Xinjiang, the 1st Secretary of the Xinjiang Communist Party, has since the end of the 1970s continuously been a Han.


2) The potential for future Uyghur unrest in Xinjiang?

Turning to the question of perspectives for future unrest staged by Uyghurs, it is clear that tensions in Xinjiang are deep-rooted. The Chinese leadership has taken steps to address grievances experienced by Uyghurs by introducing economic reforms, affirmative action programs etc., but the results have been mixed – and in some respect polices such as the Campaign to Open Up the West and the Strike Hard Ca
mpaign have actually exacerbated – not alleviated – the Uyghur’s grievances. Another factor encouraging protests among Uyghurs is that they have a historical tradition for resisting Chinese rule – China did not get genuine control over Xinjiang until the 18th century, and the Uyghurs established short-lived independent rules in the 1860s and again twice in the 1930s and 1940s. A third factor facilitating collective action by Uyghurs is Islam. Even though the Uyghurs do not adhere to a strict interpretation of Islam, Islam plays a unifying role for the Uyghurs, and Sufism which has strong roots in Xinjiang seems to be particularly well-suited for underground Islam. Finally, external events have inspired the Uyghurs to resist Chinese rule. Especially the break-up of the USSR was important, as the Uyghurs were suddenly the only major Turkic nationality without its own state with the new-found independence of the Turkic states in Central Asia. Also, Islamic movements with whom the Uyghurs have close historical, cultural and linguistic ties have emerged in Central Asia (for example Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan), serving as a source of inspiration for the Uyghurs and (at least according to the Chinese authorities) providing support to them.

At the same time however, a number of factors significantly impede the Uyghur’s capacity to oppose Chinese rule. First and foremost, the Uyghurs have historically never been united – instead of identifying as Uyghurs, they have traditionally identified with the oasis town from which their family traces its origin. In addition, Islam’s role as a unifying vehicle for Uyghur resistance is hampered by the fact that the Uyghurs traditionally adhered to a relative moderate version of Islam. This also puts into question the extent to which the Uyghurs identify with other Islamic movements in the region. Finally, even though China’s policy in Xinjiang has produced mixed results, it has in some respects reduced the capacity for Uyghur resistance – for example, the economic policy has eroded social ties among the Uyghurs, and pan-Turkism has been reduced by language reforms.

Assessing the likelihood of Uyghur resistance against the Chinese authorities in the future is thus complex. Tensions in Xinjiang are indeed deep-rooted, and actions by Uyghurs directed against Chinese rule can be expected to continue in the years to come. However, disunity is a historical problem among the Uyghurs, and even though their protests pose challenges to the Chinese leadership it does not put the future rule of the Chinese Communist Party in Xinjiang into question.

Recommended reading:

Bovingdon, Gardner (2002), Strangers in Their Own Land: The Politics of Uyghur Identity in

            Chinese Central Asia, Ph.d. dissertation Cornell University

Dillon, Michael (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Far Northwest, Routhledge

Rudelson, Justin Jon (1997), Oasis Identities – Uyghur Nationalism Along China’s Silk Road,

Columbia University Press

Starr, S. Frederick (2004), Xinjiang – China’s Muslim Borderland, M.E. Sharpe