More than a week after clashes attributed to ethnic divisions that left six people injured in the Kyrgyz village of Iskra, around 70 km east of the capital, Bishkek, local people were still clearing up broken glass and pondering what was behind the violence.
The problems began early in February when a fight broke out between Kyrgyz and Dungan youth. The Dungans are Muslims of Chinese origin, who moved to Central Asia in the 1870s to escape persecution at home. Many found refuge in Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Russian empire, and there are about 40,000 in the country today.
Police had to resort to using tear gas on 6 February to restore order in the village after two young people were hospitalised after a fight over computer time at a local school erupted into a riot.
Two Dungan youths are alleged to have attacked the pupils. Dungans accounts for 90 percent of the village's 3,000 residents, In the aftermath of the original incident, about 150 Iskra residents gathered to demand that some Dungan families be resettled, which then escalated into protesters throwing stones and setting fire to some Dungan houses.
According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the incident resulted in criminal cases being filed against six Dungans for possession of firearms.
Residents of Iskra told IRIN fights between gangs of young people – that tend to follow ethnic lines – were common. “A week ago, I was beaten by a group of Kyrgyz boys in my school, and then of course, I went and gathered my gang in order to fight them back,” Roman, a 17-year-old ethnic Russian, said.
Bishkek has been reluctant to label the violence in the village as ethnically based. “If a person hits another person it should not necessarily imply an inter-ethnic conflict, such teenager fights are very frequent,” the Khabar news agency quoted President Felix Kulov as saying last week.
This mountainous former Soviet republic of 5.1 million is home to more than 80 ethnic groups, including substantial minorities of ethnic Uzbeks and Russians, along with Uighurs, Dungans, Kazakhs, Tajiks and Tatars.
Between 1991 and 2002, more than 600,000 people emigrated from Kyrgyzstan and the ethnic minority population declined from 47 to 33 percent. Ethnic clashes have been infrequent but, sometimes serious. Fights between Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in the southern cities of Osh and Uzgen on the eve of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 claimed more than 300 lives.
Some say more needs to be done in Kyrgyzstan to promote inter-ethnic harmony. “A couple of years ago the government began implementing an ethnic tolerance programme in schools, as well as broader educational programmes that can promote the idea of a multi-cultural Kyrgyzstan, but this has now all been forgotten; it should be revived,” Valeriy Vishnevskiy, a chair of the Slavic Fund, and a member of the Assembly of People of Kyrgyzstan.
But with upwards of 65 percent of the country’s rural population living below the national poverty line, according to the World Bank, observers say lack of opportunity and conflict over scarce resources, rather than ethnic differences, are fuelling much of the conflict.
Dungans have a reputation for being more business-minded than indigenous Kyrgyz people and this has led to an income differential in many of the communities in which they live.
"Dungan families have always been better off. Their children, when fighting or arguing with their Kyrgyz peers used to tease them that they are mainly poor. Many Kyrgyz work the fields belonging to Dungan people who are sometimes viewed as outsiders, so this resentment is growing further," Asel Manasbaev, an ethnic Kyrgyz living in Iskra village, said.
“It is not a secret that Uzbeks, Uyghurs, Dungans are more enterprising people then Kyrgyz,” vice-prime minister Adakhan Madumarov, told state television on 9 February.
“Why is it bad that we are working and earning money, we’re actually creating jobs here?” Ayup, a 58-year-old Dungan told IRIN in Iskra. He added that problems in the village had been simmering for half a decade, since poorer Kyrgyz replaced emigrating Russians in the late nineties.
But Dungans believe the new administration is doing nothing to check a growing nationalism in the country that is affecting minorities.
After the wave of land grabs that followed the change in power in Kyrgyzstan in March 2005, local ethnic Turks in Novopavlovka village, found leaflets on their doors that said: “Down with Turks, go away from our land. We will burn you if you hesitate.” During the power vacuum that followed the ouster of Akayev’s regime many ethnic Russian businesses were targeted by looters.
Dungans feel they are under pressure and could face an uncertain future if the new government chooses to play the ethnic card to boost support. “We have never felt persecuted in Kyrgyzstan, but that could change and there’s plenty of concern,” one member of the community said as he prepared to fix new glass to the front of his battered shop in Iskra’s main street.