HONG KONG—Villagers on the southern Chinese resort island of Hainan are staging a round-the-clock vigil to protect local Muslim tombs after an attempt by authorities to demolish them.
The ethnic minority Hui people, who say their ancestors have lived on the same piece of land since the Tang Dynasty (618-907), have been waging a campaign in recent months to protest plans to redevelop the land as a parachute training ground for the Chinese navy base near Sanya airport.
Hai Shihao, deputy Party secretary of Huixin village, said the army had begun clearing a 100-mu (6.67-hectare) area of land at the beginning of 2008.
He called on the government to recognize the Hui people's ancestral claim to the land, rejecting a proposal by the navy to move the tombs to another location.
"We definitely can't accept this. We can't agree to it," Hai said. "The tombs of our Muslim ancestors cannot be moved."
"Ancient tombs should be given protection. No one should be allowed to move them or to dig them up."
Villagers 'in the dark'
"They didn't tell the villagers what was going on, so no one knew about it. We didn't realize it until December. At the time everyone was very upset," Hai said.
A local Hui resident surnamed Ma said desecration of the tombs was unthinkable.
"Even the Japanese wouldn't have dug up the bones of the dead during their occupation of China," Ma said.
Angry protests followed the attempt to start work.
"Someone smashed a window in the military commander's house, and someone slashed the tires on a military vehicle," Ma said. "Then they chased the military personnel away."
Hai said the navy sent people to reoccupy the land in the middle of March. But this triggered more protests, and work was once more stalled.
"The navy held consultation meetings with us via the local government," Hai said.
"They said they were prepared to find a new location to which the tombs could be moved. They were also prepared to pay compensation of 6-7,000 yuan per tomb."
No consensus reached
But Hai said the tombs were too important to the Hui people, and they didn't agree to the navy's proposal.
Hai said the consultation talks have so far yielded no agreement between the two sides, and that the problem remains unresolved. He said the military has refused to meet with the villagers directly and will only go through the local government. The villagers don't know what to do next, he said.
"Now that we have seen the damage to 10 of the tombs, we don't know if the others will meet the same fate."
The Huixin tombs, near Fenghuang township, Sanya city, Hainan province, are dated at around 700 years old.
The area was requisitioned a long time ago by the navy, which planned to build a training base there. Military personnel were sent there at the end of February to begin construction work, and damaged some tombs.
The villagers then staged a protest against the military. Up to 2,000 people have come out in protest at times.
Peaceful resolution sought
Since then, 20-30 villagers have staged a relay vigil at the tombs in case the bulldozers return.
An official surnamed Zhou at the Fenghuang township government said they were taking charge of "ideological work" among the villagers in order to calm the angry mood.
"We hope to solve this problem using the most peaceful means possible," he said, but he added the navy is unlikely to hold off forever.
An employee who answered the phone at the Sanya municipal culture and sports bureau said: "This is a problem arising between religious matters and the military. It is quite sensitive. I have no comment."
Many of China's Muslims arrived on Hainan as merchants during the Tang Dynasty. Some stayed behind, and their descendants are there to this day.
There are five key Muslim tomb sites on Hainan Island, including the Huixin site currently under dispute.
Around 8,000 Hui Muslims live in and around Sanya.
Original reporting in Cantonese by Li Ruoqing. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.