May 12, 2014 / 3:07 PM / 5 years ago

China's defense minister urges tighter security on southern border

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s defense minister urged the military to step up border security during a tour of Yunnan province which abuts Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, in comments that underscore government jitters over the southwest region’s stability.

China's Minister of National Defense General Chang Wanquan speaks at news conference following a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon in Washington August 19, 2013. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In March, 29 people were stabbed to death at a train station in the Yunnan city of Kunming, an attack Beijing blamed on militants from the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, home to the Muslim, Turkic-speaking Uighur minority.

Shortly after the attack, the ruling Communist Party chief in Yunnan, Qin Guangrong, was cited in state media as saying those responsible had tried to leave China across the province’s border to wage holy war.

Touring the western Yunnan cities of Dehong, Baoshan and Nujiang, Defense Minister Chang Wanquan said China must ensure the security of the Yunnan border area in the interests of national sovereignty and development.

“(We must) strictly control the border and, according to law, crack down on violent terrorism, drug manufacturing and trafficking and other criminal activities,” Chang said, in comments posted on Monday on the ministry’s website.

Drug-running, human trafficking and smuggling of illegal goods and animal parts have long plagued China’s porous borders with its southern neighbors.

Beijing also says it faces a real threat from militant Islamists in Xinjiang who want an independent state called East Turkestan. Authorities say many have links with foreign groups, though rights groups and some foreign experts say there is little evidence to support this.

Many Uighurs say they are unhappy at Chinese restrictions on their culture and religion, though the government says they are given widespread freedoms. More than 100 people have died in unrest in Xinjiang in the past year, prompting a crackdown by Chinese authorities.

Some Uighurs have occasionally turned up in southeast Asia seeking political asylum.

In March, Thai police said they had rescued about 200 people believed to be Uighurs from a human smuggling camp in southern Thailand.

In 2009, Cambodia deported a group of about 20 Uighurs to China. Cambodia, the recipient of increasingly large amounts of Chinese investment and trade, was sharply rebuked by human rights groups for deporting them.

Reporting by Michael Martina; Editing by Gareth Jones

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