Uighurs, a Turkic ethnic group, speaking a southeastern Turkic language related to Uzbek and were thought to number in 2002 over 200,000 in Kazakhstan, or under 1.5 percent of the population (US Department of State, 2002), mainly inhabiting the areas bordering China in the Almaty oblast.
Kazakhstan’s (historical) Uighur minority are for the most part the remnants of the vast Uighur Empire which towards the 8th Century stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria. Eventually to be overrun by the tribes that became the Kazakhs, most Uighurs migrated into what is now China, though some remained in the Almaty oblast close to China. During the Soviet era, many Uighur were assimilated into the Russian-speaking society, with the result that a majority of Uighur today speak Russian rather than Kazakh or even Uighur.
More recently, substantial numbers of Uighurs fleeing Chinese repression in Xinjiang have joined the historically well-established Uighur population in Almaty oblast. In 1962 between 60,000 and 120,000 Uighurs and Kazakhs fled into Kazakhstan to avoid repression in China.
There are thus two distinct Uighur minority communities: one established for centuries, and the other originally from Xinjiang made of mainly refugees and others fleeing the repression of Chinese authorities.
The Soviet authorities allowed Uighurs a considerable degree of cultural self-expression, perhaps partly to destabilize the political and social situation in neighbouring China during the Sino-Soviet rift. Uighurs were permitted Uighur-language newspapers, television, radio and theatre.
In June 1992 advocates of an independent Uighurstan convened their first congress in Almaty. This resulted in the creation of the East Turkestan Committee and the Uighurstan Organization of Freedom. Registration of the former by the Kazakh authorities prompted a Chinese protest. Uighur Kurultai (Congress) in Almaty campaigned for increased autonomy in Xinjiang, greater civil and religious freedoms there, and more freedom to travel to and from the region. The Chinese authorities protested against meetings organized by groups calling for an independent Uighurstan, but the Kazakh Government tolerated them. During the visit of Li Peng in April 1994, the Kazakh Government restricted travel in several border regions and in the Uighur Raion to avoid public protests against China’s policies in Xinjiang.
More recently, Kazakh authorities have started to clamp down on the activities of Uighur organisations deemed to be linked with separatist activities in Xinjiang. There have also been a number of forced returns of Uighurs to China from Kazakhstan several of its neighbouring countries, including those of Central Asia, such as Kazakstan. In some recent cases, returnees are reported to have been subjected to serious human rights violations, including torture, unfair trials and even execution.
Like most other non-Kazakh minorities, the Uighurs are underrepresented in terms of employment in state administration and other areas of employment in the public sphere. Though there are several districts where Uighurs are concentrated in Almaty oblast, ethnic Kazakhs are usually appointed as district heads and other positions of responsibility. There are continuing claims that Uighurs are not sufficiently represented in government institutions.
Additionally, Uighurs in recent years appear to face more obstacles and interference from state authorities linked to the widespread stereotyping in Kazakhstan of Uighurs as ‘terrorists’ or ‘separatists’, and linked to the country’s valued political and economic ties with China. This seems to have resulted in some Uighur rights advocacy groups having to surmount greater difficulties and delays in obtaining registration. There have also been two Uighur organisations listed as terrorist organisations in 2006: the Islamic Party of Eastern Turkestan and the Eastern Turkestan Liberation Organisation.
Minorities and indigenous peoples in