Town and gown clash at the University of Central Asia in Kyrgyzstan

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Local residents gather at the UCA campus in Naryn on June 8, 2017. Image (C) Akipress

Reports are coming in of a clash between university students at the new campus of the University of Central Asia (UCA) in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and local inhabitants. Tempers flared between town and gown in which some of the university’s students from neighbouring Tajikistan allegedly “beat up locals during the basketball match” (source: Akipress).

This led a large group of local residents to gather at the university campus on June 8 to demand retribution. The Akipress story is reproduced below. A video on the Akipress Facebook page shows a large gathering that is heated at times. It ends with Dr Diana Pauna, UCA’s Dean of Arts & Sciences, explaining the need for the students to learn not only to be better sports people but to learn some life lessons from this unfortunate incident.

Apparently, five students – and also some professors – got down on their knees by way of apology to the local residents.

Today, June 9, news is emerging that the national government is treating the response of local residents as hooliganism and a violation of public order.

The flare-up has become a nationwide controversy in Kyrgyzstan. There are several reasons for this.

Firstly, the images of angry protesters humiliating  young students and their professors by making them (not violently) get down on their knees is shocking and embarrassing and uncomfortable to watch. Bear in mind that this happened in a country where social and cultural norms and traditions are an extremely important part of life with continuing relevance. The Kyrgyz are known for being extremely hospitable and most pride themselves on this reputation.

This has led to media responses by some well-known Kyrgyz figures such as Ilim Karypbekov, also from Naryn. In a passionate article singing the praises of UCA [ru, reproduced from his Facebook page] (with some great photos too), Karypbekov writes that he is speechless, unable to explain the “horror, disturbance, shame and bitterness” of what happened. He says that the people of Naryn are the ones that should be on their knees in front of the AKDN. He says the incident will make people question Kyrgyz hospitality and the safety of international students in the country.

Secondly, the government will be highly conscious of the particular university that is the target of locals’ anger. The UCA is a major new university funded mainly by the Aga Khan Development Network and the brainchild of the Aga Khan himself, with a vision firmly rooted in positive development for Central Asia.

Thirdly, there’s more than a whiff of social tension in the air. This is not just a hierarchy mismatch – students vs elder local residents, town vs gown. There are potentially some ethnic issues too, given that the students who allegedly sparked the fight on May 27 are not from Kyrgyzstan but southern neighbour Tajikistan. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, new national identities have been forged and (re)created and seemingly out of nowhere, a new or revived sense of difference between former Soviet republics has emerged. Kyrgyzstan has a rocky history with another neighbour, Uzbekistan, with frequent border clashes in the Ferghana Valley area (see e.g. this story from August 2016). There has been significantly less conflict with Tajikistan despite the thorny and probably unresolvable border question created by Stalin, but there have been a few incidents. (Madeleine Reeves’ Border Work is a great book if you want to get into this area more deeply.)

There is no official response from UCA about the incident. It seems to me that something indeed must have happened at that ill-fated basketball match, and indeed we have video and photographic evidence of the response by locals on June 8. How and if the students will be disciplined is a matter for UCA.

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Town and gown disputes in university towns like Oxford would often lead to violent fights in the past

Disputes between students and local residents is a theme that has been recurring as long as universities have existed. Such conflicts in today’s world are normally raised and resolved through non-violent means, which is in part why the Naryn/UCA scandal hits hard.

The bigger and longer-term question is whether this causes irreparable damage to town and gown relations between UCA and the residents of Naryn. I tend to think not. There is enough vested interest in the UCA project that means a resolution is likely to be reached quickly.

Whether this will do enough to overcome any lingering concerns local residents may have is another matter, and I very much hope that in bringing a resolution about, methods that are appropriate and accepted by all parties are employed.

 

Akipress story from June 8:

Angered Naryn youth made the University of Central Asia foreign students to get down on their bended knees to apologize for a conflict that arose after the students “beat up locals during the basketball match.”

On June 8, dozens of young people in Naryn gathered for protests in front of the University demanding the authorities to step in the conflict. The protesters demanded to detain responsible students from Tajikistan who have allegedly beaten up local residents during the sports competition at the UCA on May 27.

Governor of Naryn region Amanbai Kayipov and other officials met with the protesters.

During the meeting, the angered mob demanded the Tajik students to apologize on bended knees and also demanded to expell the students from Kyrgyzstan.

After a while, students and some of the professors got on their knees and asked for apology.

The University of Central Asia (UCA) was founded in 2000. The Presidents of Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan, and His Highness the Aga Khan signed the International Treaty and Charter establishing this secular and private University; ratified by the respective parliaments, and registered with the United Nations. The Presidents are the Patrons of UCA and His Highness is the Chancellor.

The UCA Naryn Campus launched in September 2016. It is the first phase of a larger vision for the 252-hectare site, gifted by the Kyrgyz Government. Classes commenced for the inaugural class of 71 undergraduates at the Naryn Campus on 5 September.

 

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