Dungans in Central Asia. Challenges and realities of small ethnic groups

Speech by Edir Bov, “Taza Shailoo” Association, Kyrgyzstan, at the OSCE/ODIHR Human Dimension Conference

Ladies and gentlemen!

I would like to thank the organizers for the invitation to participate in the OSCE Human Dimension Conference. In my speech, I would like to talk about the problems of the Dungans living in Central Asia.

Dungans (Hueizu) are an ethnic group living mainly in Central Asia for the last 140 years. Originally, they come from China and profess the religion of Islam. The approximate number of Dungans living in Central Asia is about 150 000 people.

Like many other small ethnic groups, Dungans face cases of stigmatisation and discrimination of their rights in various aspects: social, cultural, linguistic, etc. However, despite this, the living conditions of the Dungans in the Central Asian region should have been considered favorable. This was until February 2020 when an “inter-ethnic” conflict occurred. An “attack” on the Dungan settlements in the Kordai region, the Republic of Kazakhstan, resulted in human casualties.

Case “Kordai pogroms” February 2020

In the “Kordai pogrom”, which took place on the night of February 7-8, 2020, more than tens of thousands of people of predominantly Kazakh nationality took part. They attacked 4 densely populated Dungan settlements: Masanchi, Bular Batyr, Sortobe, Aukhatty of Kordai district, Zhambyl region. As a result of the attack by groups of aggressive youth numbering several thousand people, 11 people were killed (according to official data, 10 Dungans and 1 Kazakh), more than 500 people received wounds of varying severity, some of them – from firearms. 168 residential buildings and dozens of business facilities were burned, 122 trucks and cars were also burned or stolen, thousands of cattle were stolen and taken to neighboring villages, and about 25 000 women, children and elderly people were forced to seek salvation in the neighboring republic of Kyrgyzstan.

The official position of the authorities from the first days of the conflict and throughout the entire period of the investigation was not standard. The country’s authorities initially called the attack on the Dungan villages a “domestic conflict”. Later the country’s President Tokayev called it a “conflict of criminal groups“. So far the conflict has not been accredited the status of “inter-ethnic”, and the Dungans were not recognized as victims. From the first days [of the investigation], the created government commission has put the blame for the conflict on the Dungans themselves. Almost from the very first days arbitrary arrests began, searches were carried out in the houses of the Dungans, and dozens of Dungan men were detained for participating in mass riots, despite the fact that the Dungan population only came out to protect their families and houses to prevent new pogroms and murders. As independent media and individual experts note, the help from law enforcement agencies and their intervention to extinguish the conflict were unjustifiably belated, and that led to such terrible consequences.

The trials against the detained Dungans lasted for more than one year. There were reports that some of the detainees were tortured. Lawyers recorded a number of procedural violations. Court sessions were held under quarantine measures related to COVID-19 in the building of the pre-trial detention center in the city of Taraz, Zhambyl region. Even in such difficult conditions, the lawyers of the detainees managed to prove the innocence of almost all the detained Dungans, but the court did not take into account the arguments and evidence from the defence. As a result, out of 14 people (Dungans), 13 people were sentenced to various terms, three of them being sentenced to 16 to 20 years in prison. The trials, as well as the decisions of the court, were politically motivated. (To date, 3 people of Dungan nationality convicted in the Kordai events have been released from places of deprivation ahead of schedule, having served 1/3 of the sentence).

Access to information and media coverage of the conflict

Information about the conflict from the first days was replicated only in independent media, and even there it was presented in a limited form since journalists had limited access to the scene. During the conflict all villages were disconnected from electricity, the Internet was blocked, and information could only be obtained from residents with SIM cards from mobile operators of bordering Kyrgyzstan. Aggressive attacks on the Dungans with the use of “Nazi rhetoric” continued for a long time on social networks, thus forming public opinion. There were threats against the Dungans and other individuals and organizations that tried to highlight the real picture of what happened. The accusations against the Dungans were based on “ignorance and lack of knowledge of the state Kazakh language”, “disrespect for the indigenous people”, “disrespect for the laws of the country”, “refusal to serve in the army”, etc. Famous public and political figures, such as Mukhtar Taizhan, Bakhytbek Smagul and others posted provocative articles on social networks that aroused public dislike for the Dungans. Users posted thousands of comments with accusations and threats of reprisal against the Dungans, exerted psychological pressure and intimidated everyone who would like to support the affected Dungans. Also, “hate speech” was used very brightly by the so-called “troll factories”, which, from their fake accounts, pursued an aggressive policy against the Dungans. There was no reaction from law enforcement agencies to inciting ethnic hatred.

The response of the international community to the conflict

From the first days, the authorities of Kazakhstan restricted the access of international organizations to the scene of the events. So far not a single international organization has visited the place (with the exception of the Red Crescent, which provided humanitarian assistance to the victims). No testimonies of the victims have been received. All evidence. including audio, video recording, and documentation was collected by the Dungan community with the support of public activists from neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Only after numerous appeals to international organizations, UN procedural bodies, thanks to the efforts and support of international human rights institutions, such as the ADC Memorial, which from the first days of the conflict provided practical assistance in preparing an appeal to the UN and other international organizations, it became possible to carry out information and technical support for the protection of the violated rights of the Dungans in Kazakhstan.

In September 2020, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) responded to the appeal of the Dungans, requested full information from the Government of Kazakhstan on the Kordai events and called to respect the violated rights of Dungans. Thanks to the reaction of the UN CERD, the pressure on the Dungan community in Kazakhstan has slightly decreased, including in social networks.

Only after the January events of 2022 in Kazakhstan, President Tokayev, in his speech in the Majlis (Parliament), noted that the attack on the Dungan villages is a carefully prepared and orchestrated attack of the third party aimed at splitting the Kazakh society.

Nevertheless, 13 Dungans who defended their homes were convicted and sentenced to various terms. Material compensations to the dead and wounded were not paid in full, material compensations to people whose houses were burned down were paid at the expense of voluntary donations and not from the state budget. The damage was underestimated, the issue of compensation to businesses that sustained billions of tenge losses was not considered and is not on the agenda, as well as the compensations for stolen, destroyed vehicles, stolen livestock and other property.

Summing up the description of the “Kordai conflict”, it should be noted that the authorities of Kazakhstan did not draw the proper conclusions regarding the inter-ethnic situation in the country, which creates a threat of a repetition of such a tragedy in the future.

  • Law enforcement agencies did not make any effort to identify the true organizers of the attacks on the Dungan villages and bring them to justice;
  • The families of 10 residents of Dungan villages, who were killed and left 39 children orphaned, were not provided with compensation due in such a case, as established by law (Moreover, the family of the deceased ethnic Kazakh D.A., who drove a car into a crowd of Dungans, killing two and crippling dozens of people, was paid compensation many times higher than the compensation to the dead Dungans);
  • Owners of burnt-out residential buildings who suffered from pogroms and fires were compensated only a small part of the funds lost as a result of the events: the total amount of payments amounted to only 213 million tenges (or 12.5% ​​of the real amount of damage);
  • Owners whose property, livestock and cars were burned or stolen, did not receive financial compensation; no criminal persecution has been initiated regarding these casess;
  • Business facilities whose goods, buildings and structures were damaged also did not receive compensation;
  • No assessment was given to the actions of law enforcement agencies that allowed riots, although at the trial on the Kordai events it turned out that they had information about preparations for an attack on Dungan villages. In addition, Dungan villages are located in a specially protected border zone near checkpoints with border and internal troops. Despite this, tens of thousands of people were able to freely enter the territory to commit a crime and leave with the looted property without encountering any obstacles from law enforcement agencies;
  • No assessment was given of the widespread provocation on the Internet or the actions of troll factories and statements of individual figures, who contributed to the growth of nationalist sentiments and the mobilization of young people in the region;
  • An effective state policy and mechanisms for the prevention of inter-ethnic conflicts have not been worked out.


Situation in Kyrgyzstan

The general situation in the sphere of inter-ethnic relations in the countries of Central Asia is more or less similar. Some issues of integrating the Dungans into the local community in Kyrgyzstan are akin to the analogous issues in Kazakhstan, although the Dungans of Kyrgyzstan are in more favorable conditions. In Kyrgyzstan, there was also an inter-ethnic conflict in 2006. It took place in the village of Iskra in the Chui region where the Dungans and ethnic Kyrgyz clashed, but there were no casualties. Given the strong position of the authorities at that time, tragic consequences were avoided.


There is a tendency to accuse the Dungans of not knowing the state language, which is exaggerated from time to time in social networks, and other accusations of a nationalistic nature, but they are identified and suppressed by law enforcement agencies.

Every year there are cases of domestic conflicts in which ethnic minorities, which tend to be inclined to inter-ethnic conflicts, take part. Often these conflicts are associated with social or economic disagreements, and disputes between neighbors during the distribution of resources (for example during the irrigation period, etc). During every conflict, one may witness reproaches and accusations towards ethnic minorities. Law enforcement agencies or authorities do not always have experience in resolving such conflicts, and often such issues are resolved through corruption, which causes discontent in society and inflates inter-ethnic conflicts.

Integration of ethnic minorities into the local community can sometimes be difficult. For example, to participate in competitions for administrative or municipal positions, knowledge of the state language is a mandatory requirement. However, the educational program is designed for native speakers and does not allow non-native speakers to adequately master the sufficient level of the state language. There are national government programs “Kyrgyz zharany” (translated as “Kyrgyz citizen”) that are aimed at integrating and strengthening the status of all citizens of the country, but, unfortunately, the mechanisms for the execution of these programs have not been fully developed.

The system of conflict prevention and the state policy on the application of preventive measures regarding inter-ethnic relations are not effective enough. There are no systems for informing and alerting citizens; there is no training and calling for tolerance and good neighborliness. Along with economic and social problems in society, corruption, and inefficient implementation of domestic legislation, this creates prerequisites for inter-ethnic tension.

The role and participation of civil society are limited by the goals and objectives of international programs implemented in Kyrgyzstan. Often there are more funds spent on resolving the consequences of the conflict than on preventing it. The civil sector, despite the events that took place in 2010 in the south of the country, has not developed a unified approach and methodology for dealing with such conflicts. Mediation and conflict resolution projects are limited by geographical and time frames and are mainly concentrated in the south of the country. The places of compact residence of the Dungans (mainly Chui, and Issyk-Kul regions) are not included in the conflict risk zone and do not attract the attention of international organizations, although the risks and factors of conflicts on inter-ethnic grounds are quite high.