An outbreak of violence in southern Kazakhstan that saw members of a local Muslim ethnic minority of Chinese origin come under attack has raised concerns and prompted calls for changes in a country that prides itself on tolerance.
At least 10 people were killed and dozens wounded after a brawl between Dungans (also known as Hui) and Kazakh police on Thursday was followed by a rampage the following day.
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A group of men on Friday started torching buildings and cars in a cluster of five villages in the Zhambyl region, about 130km (81 miles) west of Almaty city, after videos were circulated on social media purportedly showing the clash between Dungans and the local police.
Thousands of people, mostly Dungans, fled across the border to Kyrgyzstan after the escalation.
Kanat Sultanaliev, the executive director of Tian Shan Policy Centre at American University of Central Asia, said, “The conflict arose from nothing.”
“It was a usual bribery scene,” he told Al Jazeera, quoting local media reports citing witnesses. “A traffic police unit stopped a car with a couple of Dungans in it. They refused to pay, ended up beating the policemen,” he said. “Later, other Kazakh police guys (officers) went to the house where the Dungans involved in the initial fight lived and the conflict escalated immediately.”
The authorities confirmed that the initial fight on Thursday involved a traffic incident, but did not mention the policemen or a bribery allegation.
Sultanaliev said the unrest has deeper roots.
“They live almost in isolation,” he said of the Dungans, who have lived in what are today southern Kazakhstan and northern Kyrgyzstan since they fled persecution in China in the 19th century.
“They live in their communities and those communities are in several villages comprised of only Dungans in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. That is why there is some disintegration between them and the local population – Kazakh and Kyrgyz people,” Sultanaliev said.
He said the Dungans often become the targets of discrimination, especially from the police and border guards.
Predominantly ethnic Hui community village of Masanchi today after yesterday’s violence. Kyrgyz border service reported increased flow of women and children from Kazakhstan into Kyrgyz Republic. https://t.co/ceWJlUBH79 pic.twitter.com/B68wZrCcJ5
— Ryskeldi Satke (@RyskeldiSatke) February 8, 2020
“The Dungans have been prospering since the Soviet Union collapsed as they adapted quickly to a free market economy. When they cross the border, for example, they are charged more than [other] local people,” Sultanaliev said.
“That’s why there was already tension between the Kazakhs and the Dungans and the same can be said about the relationship between the Kyrgyz and the Dungans,” he said.
Kazakhs make the largest part (58.9 percent) of the population in Kazakhstan, where “more than 100 ethnic groups live in peace”, according to the government.
On Monday, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev sacked the governor, deputy governor and police chief of the southern Zhambyl province following the escalation.
The new governor is a former deputy prime minister who has also been appointed head of a government commission probing the violence.
Tokayev had earlier blamed the escalation on “provocateurs”, saying that justice will be served to anyone inciting hatred between ethnic groups.
But Oyan, Qazaqstan (Kazakh for “Wake up, Kazakhstan”) – a civil rights organisation founded in Almaty – denounced the government for the unrest.
In a statement on Sunday, it said the root cause of the deadly violence was “a failed state that is not able to effectively manage, guarantee security and ensure the rule of law for all citizens, without exception, both Kazakhs and national minorities”.
The activists of the organisation said a narrow group of people usurped the power in the oil-rich country, “leaving the vast majority of citizens in poverty, creating feelings of injustice, distrust of each other and insecurity of tomorrow”.
They called for the reform of the police and the local governance, saying corruption in these bodies “encourage unlawful methods of resolving disputes and conflicts”.
“Day by day, more and more often we are witnessing an increase in the hostile language in society, dividing citizens into those who have the right by blood and those who need to be reminded of the once generous hospitality shown to them,” the statement said.
It also accused the authorities and political forces associated with the government of directly or indirectly encouraging intolerance of “different political views and lifestyle”.
“Impunity, incitement and cowardice in these matters are destroying the state,” Oyan, Qazaqstan said.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Helene Thibault, assistant professor of political science at Kazakhstan’s Nazarbayev University, said the authorities were “not extremely concerned” about the conflict.
She said it was unlikely for the government to take a stand on the ethnic intolerance, “because this contradicts their narrative”.
“Kazakhstan prides itself on being multinational and having a lot of tolerance towards its own minorities,” she said. “The authorities do not comment, advertise or use ethnic issues for political purposes much because this contradicts their narrative.”
Thibault said the country has seen a number of violent attacks on people of Chinese origin over the last few years, but they mainly involved migrant workers and entrepreneurs.
“This (the attack on local Chinese minority) is even more concerning, especially because it resulted in deaths,” she said, claiming that the government did not seem to have a plan of action about how to tackle these issues.
“Usually, they express their regret but do not plan ahead to avoid such clashes,” she said.
Sultanaliev also argued it was unlikely for the situation to change any time soon.
“The region as a whole has a very difficult ethnic landscape with dozens of potential inter-ethnic conflicts among minorities or between minorities and the core population of our countries. Authorities tend to avoid talking openly about ethnic tensions.”
Follow Al Jazeera’s Tamila Varshalomidze on Twitter @tamila87v