Speaking a southeastern Turkic language related to Uzbek, the small Uyghur minority – (estimated at 12,691, around 0.2 per cent of the population, in 2016 official data) – are concentrated in the southern part of the country near the city of Osh, with a sizeable population also in the capital of Bishkek. are mainly Sunni Muslims.
Kyrgyzstan’s Uyghur minority are the remnants of the vast Uyghur Empire which towards the 8th century stretched from the Caspian Sea to Manchuria. Eventually to be overrun by the tribes that became the Kyrgyz, most Uyghurs migrated into what is now China, though some remained and occupied the western Tarim Basin of the Ferghana Valley.
Their small size and relative insignificant role or influence in power struggles have meant that the Uyghurs have not played a prominent role in the struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries. During the Soviet era, many Uyghurs were assimilated into the Russian-speaking society, with the result that a majority of Uyghurs today speak Russian or Uzbek rather than Uyghur, though this may shift towards Kyrgyz in the years to come.
This long-standing situation has in recent years been changed by the arrival of Uyghurs fleeing Chinese repression in Xinjiang. Initially, the Kyrgyz government discouraged this movement though did not attempt to suppress it harshly, permitting the operation of Uyghur organisations sympathetic or even directly linked in their sympathies with the Uyghurs of Xinjiang. Two such organisations – the Uyghur Freedom Organization and the Kyrgyzstan Uyghur Unity (Ittipak) Association – have been warned by government authorities not to indulge in activities relating to the Uyghur diaspora from Xinjiang and with the Tibet Liberation Movement because of Chinese official sensitivities.
There have been claims of abusive and antagonistic statements – some coming from government officials – describing Uyghurs as terrorists and fundamentalists (‘Wahhabis’), and perhaps contributing to what is perceived in negative societal attitudes and media coverage of the Uyghur minority. Rights groups have expressed concern that Kyrgyz authorities too often target Uyghurs with trumped-up terrorism charges, allegedly as a result of pressure from China as bilateral ties have strengthened between the countries. Uyghur community representatives have also expressed concern about government surveillance. This has intensified following several violent incidents targeting Chinese government representatives in Bishkek, for instance in August 2016 when the Chinese embassy was attacked and three employees were injured. The Kyrgyz authorities blamed the incident on the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a separatist organisation. Many Uyghur community groups in Kyrgyzstan have condemned these incidents.
Uyghur community leaders in Kyrgyzstan do not express support for Uyghur separatism, but some have reportedly raised concerns that the lack of a Uyghur-language school in the country violates their language rights.
Uyghurs have also been targeted by nationalist youth groups such as Kyrk Choro, which in January 2015 issued a manifesto calling for foreigners to be allowed to stay only in hotels, and for ethnic Uyghur traders to be barred from the Madina, Bishkek’s largest clothing market. Kyrk Choro appears to have at least tacit support for its actions from government bodies, including security forces.
Updated March 2018