Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 and the Uighur

Early in the morning on Saturday, March 8th, Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370 took off from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia.  The airliner, carrying 239 passengers, was headed for Beijing, China.  Two men boarded the plane with stolen passports.  Reuters published video photos of the two men (who looked nothing like the men whose passports they stole). 

 

March 8th was, among various anniversaries, the 35th anniversary of the day China withdrew its military forces from Vietnam.  Flight MH370 was taking a route directly over Vietnam.  The Vietnamese Air Force and Navy, with the help of the U.S. Navy and others, scoured the South China Sea for wreckage and debris.  Two oil spills were later determined to be from barges that had dumped their fuel.  A piece of debris they found was not from the airliner.

 

Now, Reuters reports that “Malaysia’s military believes a jetliner missing for almost four days turned and flew hundreds of kilometers to the west after it last made contact with civilian air traffic control off the country’s east coast, a senior officer told Reuters on Tuesday.

 

“In one of the most baffling mysteries in recent aviation history, a massive search operation for the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER has so far found no trace of the aircraft or the 239 passengers and crew.

 

“Malaysian authorities have previously said Flight MH370 disappeared about an hour after it took off from Kuala Lumpur for the Chinese capital Beijing.

 

“’It changed course after Kota Bharu and took a lower altitude. It made it into the Malacca Strait [between Malaysia and the island of Sumatra, to Malaysia’s south],’ the senior military officer, who has been briefed on investigations, told Reuters.

 

“That would appear to rule out sudden catastrophic mechanical failure, as it would mean the plane flew around 350 miles at least after its last contact with air traffic control, although its transponder and other tracking systems were off.

 

“A non-military source familiar with the investigations said the report was one of several theories and was being checked.

 

So if they didn’t crash but rather went in another direction, where could that 2,700 or so miles of fuel take the airliner?  That 2,700 miles could take them as far as the Gobi Desert in Mongolia, western China or Pakistan.  Given that the plane was destined for Beijing, with mainly Chinese passengers, and that the Uighurs/Uyghurs (pronounced wee-gurs) killed 29 Chinese people the previous week in a machete attack on a train station in Kunming in southern China (not to far from the border with Vietnam), the best guess would be Western China, long dominated by the Uighurs.  Xinjiang separatists are being blamed for the attack.

 

Xinjiang Uighur is a province in Northwest China, whose capital is Urumqi.  Xinjiang is mountainous and sparsely populated.  The capital was formerly named Tihua or Dihua.  Although Ürümqi, its Mongol name, meaning “beautiful pasture” is situated near the northern route of the Silk Road.  A relatively young city, according to Chinese scholars, during the 22nd year of Emperor Taizong’s reign in the Tang Dynasty, AD 648, the Tang government set up the town of Luntai in the ancient town seat of Urabo, 6 miles from the southern suburb of present-day Ürümqi. Ancient Luntai Town was a seat of local government, and collected taxes from the caravans along the northern route of the Silk Road.

 

Steppe peoples had used the location, the pass between the Bogda Shan to the east and the Tian Shan to the west, connecting the  Dzungbar Basin to the north and the Turpan Depression to the south. In the 7th century the location was controlled by tribes of the Gokturks (Turkic Khaganate). In 742 AD, the Göktürk Khaganate split as the Uyghur tribes and the Eastern “wing” of the Göktürks broke off to form the Uyghur Khaganate (Empire). Ürümqi lay in the center of this empire until 1220, when it merged with the Mongol Empire under Genghis Khan. After the division of the Mongol Empire, the town then passed into the Chagatai Khanate (also Turkic) where Sufi Islam dominated Ürümqi culture. Around 1670, the Uyghur tribes revolted from the Chagatai Turks and united with the Dzungar tribes to form the Zunghar Khanate. Ürümqi remained a small town, and less important than the oasis and Silk Road trade center Turpan 120 miles to the southeast.

 

The Uyghurs (Uyghur: ئۇيغۇر‎,) are a Turkic ethnic group living in Eastern and Central Asia. Today, Uyghurs live primarily in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Republic in China, where they are officially recognized as one of the 56 ethnic minorites. An estimated 80 percent of Xinjiang’s Uyghurs live in the southwestern portion of the region, the Tarim Basin.  Outside Xinjiang, the largest community of Uyghurs in China is in Taoyuan County, in south-central Human Province.  Outside of China, significant diasporic communities of Uyghurs exist in the Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Uzbekistan. Smaller communities are found in Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Canada, and the United States.

 

Before the Uyghurs, in 439 in Central Asia a distinctive clan called “Achina” or “Ashina” lived in the territory now located in north-west China, Xinjiang province or Eastern Turkistan. They spoke either a Turkic or Mongolic language and they were the remnants of the aristocracy of the steppes’ former Xiongnu Empire which had been destroyed by the China Han dynasty in circa 100. Their name, according to the prominent historian, Lev Gumilev, is derived from the Mongolian word for wolf “chono”, “china” or “shina” with a Chinese prefix of “A” which means the respectful, elder, important.  In combination it means Noble Wolf or simply “The Wolf.”

 

The Türks or the Kök Türks, also known as Ashina/Açina Turks and sometimes as its Anatolian Turkish version Gokturks (Celestial/Blue Turks), were a nomadic confederation of Turkic peoples in medieval Inner Asia. The Kök Türks, under the leadership of Bumin Qaghan (d. 552) and his sons, succeeded the Rouran as the main power in the region and established the Turkic Khaganate (“Empire”), one of several nomadic dynasties which would shape the future geolocation, culture, and dominant beliefs of the Turkic peoples.

 

They were known in Chinese historical sources as Tujue (Tu-chueh). According to Chinese sources, the meaning of the word Tujue or tou-mou was  tou-mou “combat helmet” reportedly because the shape of the Altai, or “Gold,” Mountains, where they lived, was similar to a combat helmet.  The Altai Mountains are on the westernmost border of Mongolia, with Russia to the North, and the now-Arabized Kazakhstan to the direct west.

 

The name Göktürk is said to mean “Celestial Turks.”  This is consistent with “the cult of heavenly ordained rule” which was a recurrent element of Altaic political culture and as such may have been imbibed by the Göktürks from their predecessors in Mongolia.  Similarly, the name of the ruling Ashina clan may derive from the Khotanese Saka term for “deep blue,” āššɪna. The name might also derive from a Tungusic tribe related to Aisin.  It appears that is the origination of our word, “Asian” and also the name, “China.”

 

In the tenth century, the Karluks, Yaghmas, Chigils and other Turkic tribes founded the Kara-Khanid Khanate in Semirechve, in Western Tian Shan and Kashgaria, and later conquered Transoxiana. The Karakhanid rulers were likely to be Yaghmas who were associated with the Toguz Oghuz (c. 971), and some historians therefore see this as a link between the Karakhanid and the Uyghurs of the Uyghur Khaganate, although this connection is disputed by others.

 

The Karakhanids converted to Islam in the Tenth Century, the first Turkic dynasty to do so, and modern Uyghurs see the Muslim Karakhanids as an important part of their history. However, Islamization of the people of the Tarim Basin was a gradual process. The Buddhist Kingdom of Khotan was conquered by the Muslim Karakhanids from Kashgar in the early 11th century, but Qocho remained mainly Buddhist until the 15th century, and the conversion of the Uyghur people to Islam was not completed until the 17th century.

 

The 12th and 13th century saw the domination by non-Muslim powers: first the Kara-Khitans in the 12th century, followed by the Mongols in the 13th century. After the death of the Genghis Khan in 1227, Transoxiana and Kashgar became the domain of his second son, Chagatai Khan. The Chagatain Khanate split into two in the 1340s, and area of the Chagatai Khanate where the modern Uyghurs lived came to be known as Moghulistan, which meant “land of the Mongols.” In the 14th century, a Chagatayid khan, Tughluq Temur, converted to Islam, and the Mongols of Chagatai Khanate became largely Islamized by the mid-14th century. His son Khizir Khoja conquered Qocho and Turfan in the 1390s, and the Uyghurs there became largely Muslim by the beginning of the 16th century.

 

Islam was also spread by the Sufis, and branches of its Nashbandi order known as the Khojas seized control of political and military affairs in the Tarim Basin and Turfan from the Chagataid Mongols in the 17th century. The Khojas however split into two rival factions, the Aqtaghlik Khojas and the Qarataghlik Khojas. The power of the Khojas lasted until the 19th century.

 

Urumqi has the distinction, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, of being the capital city furthest from any ocean in the world.  But it does have an international airport: Ürümqi Diwopu International Airport.  If you were a couple of terrorists, sympathetic to the Uighur, and being Muslim, you’d want to make a statement to the Chinese. Urumqi Diwopu International would be the perfect place to land your hijacked airplane.  It’s rather unlike the terrorists to hijack an airplane; their preference has always been to blow one up.

 

Somewhere between Sumatra and Urumqi is where the authorities will probably find that airliner, either in pieces or intact (let us hope the former).

 

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Published in: on March 11, 2014 at 3:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

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