The Tragedy of the Dungan and the Subsequent Impunity of the Perpetrators as Catalysts for the Violation of National Minority Rights in Central Asia Amid Global Processes

In publishing this article by a civil rights activist about the problems of Dungan people in Central Asia, ADC Memorial is expressing its extreme concern about reports of numerous posts on Kazakh social media that incite ethnic enmity and hatred of the country’s Dungan population and call for violence and about reports that defenders of ethnic minority rights are being subjected to harassment and pressure.

Readers are reminded that the bloody pogrom of dense Dungan settlements in southern Kazakhstan (February 2020) that killed at least 11 people and injured thousands, was accompanied by and in many ways caused by mass calls for violence on social media. Unfortunately, the consequences of this conflict have yet to be overcome, primarily because the actions of the authorities and security units were never given a legal assessment and responsibility was assigned to the victims.

The Dungan tragedy must not be repeated. The international community – bodies of the UN, the EU, the CoE, and the OSCE – must pay particular attention to the problems of ethnic minorities in Central Asia. The government of the Republic of Kazakhstan must prevent provocative acts in relation to the Dungan population, not just in dense Dungan settlements in the south, but also in other cities where they live and work. Defenders of ethnic minority rights and civil rights activists must be freed from pressure and persecution for their human rights activities. Justice for the victims of the conflict must be restored: This also involves reviewing the sentences of the convicted Dungans, which international human rights institutions have long been calling for Kazakhstan to do.

Amid the global challenges that have impacted the entire world in recent years (the COVID19 pandemic, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the economic crisis, and so forth), the global community and international institutions have not responded to the problems of protecting and defending the rights and freedoms of national minorities in Central Asia in an appropriate or timely manner. This, in turn, has contributed to an escalation in violation of minority rights in the region.

Even though Central Asian countries have from time to time experienced conflicts involving ethnic minorities, the anti-Dungan pogrom in Kazakhstan was unprecedented: During the night of February 7-8, 2022, four Dungan settlements in Korday District were brutally attacked by thousands of aggressive people chanting nationalist slogans. At the time, at least 11 people died because of the unrest. Hundreds of people were wounded, citizens’ property was looted and set on fire, and several thousand people – mainly women, children, and the elderly – were forced to flee to the neighboring republic. During the first hours of the conflict, telecommunications and electricity connections were turned off in all four villages; in other words, people were cut off from the outside world.

State law enforcement structures were unjustifiably and even criminally late to take measures to assist and intervene, which only contributed to the scale of the consequences. Witnesses said that this was confirmed by court proceedings and that the delay was intentional to give criminal elements the opportunity to “deal” with the Dungan. The most tragic aspect of this all was that guilt for organizing the conflict was assigned to the Dungan who came out to protect their homes, while the true organizers and many of the attackers were never identified to accommodate the nationalist mood in a part of society. Dozens of Dungan were arrested within the one to two months following the conflict; 13 have been sentenced to prison terms of varying lengths. The investigative actions of law enforcement bodies involved a colossal amount of pressure on the detainees and the use of prohibited measures (torture). The trials were held behind closed doors in the pretrial detention center in Taraz, Jambyl Oblast under strict quarantine measures related to the COVID-19 pandemic. This limited the ability to provide the defendants with a robust defense. But even in spite of these circumstances, the defendants’ attorneys were able to introduce convincing evidence that the charges were groundless and that the detained Dungan were innocent. Unfortunately, the court’s decision was politically motivated.

History, of course, will put everything in its place: Sooner or later, the concerned parties, the organizers, and the attackers will be identified and the events will be assessed from legal and social standpoints. And even though the Korday pogrom will always be a blemish on the history of modern Kazakhstan, we must also talk about those who displayed courage and humanity.

About the fearless ethnic Kazakhs – friends, neighbors, and other local residents – who rushed to help in the first hours of the tragedy, who rallied to defend the Dungans, and who hid Dungan families in their homes, literally wresting them from the hands of the arriving bandits, saving them from reprisals, and proving the inviolability of good-neighborliness, friendly relations, and unity.

About the brave community leaders and ordinary concerned citizens who were not afraid to be publicly condemned in wide-ranging information attacks deployed by various nationalistic “troll factories” and who openly supported the Dungan people on social media and other information platforms, demanding a fair trial and punishment of the guilty parties.

About people of different nationalities who opened up their homes to Dungan refugees and victims and collected food and hygiene products, clothes, medicines, and so forth for them. And there were many people like this, many more than the bandits carrying out someone’s political order.

Unfortunately, the Korday tragedy did not receive proper attention from international institutions or in public space both because of the pandemic and because of restrictions created by the Kazakh government to prevent publicity. For example, reporters and human rights groups, including international ones, were not allowed to visit the place of the conflict, and no international organization has visited the area yet.

Subsequent tragedies involving a violation of minority rights in Central Asian countries occurred as a natural result of the Korday events.

These include the persecution of Pamiris in Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast (GBAO), Tajikistan, which started (for the umpteenth time in history) in November 2021 with the suppression of protests using similar methods of blocking the Internet and turning off electricity and telecommunications connections. These also include the problems of the people of Karakalpakstan, Uzbekistan, whose protests were suppressed in June 2022 using the same mechanisms of blocking communications and shutting off the minority from the outside world. In a situation of isolation, the arbitrary will and impunity of security and law enforcement structures in both countries led to dozens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries and arrests. The trials of the protestors that are underway in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan are reminiscent of the trials of the Dungans.

Unlike the events in the GBAO or in the Republic of Karakalpakstan, the conflict in Korday had no protest potential on the part of the Dungan themselves, and the actions of the bands of nationalist thugs that attacked Dungan settlements were artificially orchestrated. We hope that one day we will learn what political games and groups the Dungan fell victim to.

International organizations like the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the UN Special Rapporteur on National Minorities, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities, and other international human rights institutions – must devote more attention to the problems of national minorities in Central Asia within the framework of their mandates.

These institutions cannot limit themselves to gathering information from the state and analyzing open sources. Instead, they must visit conflict areas; familiarize themselves with the situation; meet with the victims, the local population, and government bodies; and provide an objective assessment of the events as soon as they possibly can.

It is important to remember that ethnic minorities have no other way to protect their rights in the face of violations made by state institutions than to appeal to international organizations intended to protect minority rights. The problems of minorities have taken a back seat to the global processes occurring in the world, and minority voices are going unheard. Lack of engagement, inattention, and a formalized approach to minority issues on the part of international organizations could trigger other conflicts and result in even more far-reaching and tragic consequences.