Licensed to kill Osman


osmanbaturFrom whichever angle he is viewed, the Xinjiang Kazakh leader Osman Batur (1899-1951) is a larger than life figure. For Kazakhs, particularly those who fled China in the 1940s and formed a diaspora community in Turkey, he is without doubt a national hero. To those Western anti-Communists who had dealings with him, there was no more noble a savage. From the Chinese point of view, though, he is something quite different: a bandit, who epitomised the perilous situation in Xinjiang on the eve of liberation, when opportunist local chiefs were on the verge of selling out to the imperialists led by the US. Osman’s show trial and execution in Ürümchi in 1951 thus provided a rousing climax to the CCP’s early “bandit suppression” campaigns in Xinjiang, an event celebrated in PRC historiography as much as in literature (e.g. Wang Yuhu’s recently re-released Xinjiang pingpan jishi 新疆平叛纪事).Read More

Of all Osman’s dalliances, it is his involvement with Mongolia that is perhaps least well known. Given the presence of Kazakhs in western Mongolia, and constant movement back and forth between Xinjiang and Mongolia, these ties were close at times. It was in Mongolia in 1943 that Osman sought refuge from the attacks of the Ürümchi warlord Sheng Shicai, and Marshall Choibalsan personally made the difficult journey into the wilds of western Mongolia to meet with him in February 1944. When Osman turned against the Soviet-Mongolia bloc and sought out a modus vivendi with the rising power of the Guomindang, though, his one-time Communist friends decided to liquidate him. The Beidashan (or Baitag Bogd) incident of 1947, in which Mongolian pilots bombed the Kazakh rebels’ camp, is the most well known episode in this conflict. This was not the only effort to eliminate Osman, however.

Last year the Mongolian newspaper Today (Önöödör) shed some light on Mongolia’s pursuit of Osman by publishing an interview with a retired secret agent, assigned to underground work in Xinjiang in the 1940s. Here a translation of the article is offered. In it, the elderly Kazakh man talks about his recruitment to the Mongolian secret services, and two missions to kill Osman Batur in which he took part. Without an effective government in Ürümchi able to manage its long and mountainous border with Mongolia, these agents evidently crossed into Chinese territory at will, and once there found a ready-made network of agents (including Uyghurs) to support them. Nevertheless, the Mongol assassins could not get close enough to Osman to pull the trigger, blundering into his guards on both occasions. Eventually the Chinese Red Army, who were the least of Osman’s worries for most of his time on the run, succeeded where the Mongols had failed.


seilkhanB. Seilkhan: Our two assignments to kill Osman were not accomplished

Interview by D. Zayaabat

The name of this clear-headed octogenarian, tall as the mighty Altai and with a youthful step, is Bürgitbay Seilkhan. Only a few people and the faded pages of the archives know of the cross-border espionage carried out on special assignment by this man, who worked for many years in the weather bureau. The elderly agent lives in Bayan-Ölgii. On my way to see the doctor, I spoke with him while he was in the city, where he has been for about one month, petitioning to receive an apartment according to the veterans policy.

– My home is Tolbonuur Sum in the Chandman Uul Aimag, or today’s Tolbo Sum in the Khovd Aimag. Ours was a poor settlement. I used to go around the Mongol camps, doing menial tasks. In this way I learnt Mongolian. I joined in the literacy group that was first set up in our sum; being taught Uyghur-script Mongolian and Arabic script was the beginning of my career. At that time we became involved in the new policies aimed at accomplishing the major tasks of educating the people of the border regions, creating employment, and replenishing livestock herds, and our lives improved.

– How about your mother and father?

Indeed. My parents were herders, my father Bürgitbay was a big Mongolian-looking man. At that time, because of religious differences we Kazakhs usually didn’t go to Mongolian settlements, or eat from the same table. But because my father was a poor man he used to work in the Mongol camps, so he knew Mongolian, and was someone who would eat any food that was given to him, and would drink airag and other dairy products regardless. In 1933 in Tolbonuur Sum of Khovd Aimag something called a komendatur was established. This komendatur was the basis of our security. My father was the translator for the komendatur, so for its livelihood my family was linked to the security institutions.

– So how did you become involved with this institution?

– While serving in the camp, in 1942 I entered the banner school, and studied until the second grade. There were some really good students there. I studied in a class with students who were over twenty years old, and at the end I taught them to write. Because I was considered a good student I was recruited to the Youth Union, I felt like had become a big shot. In September 1943 a big incident occurred, involving Kazakhs killing the head of the party cell, a government official, the security chief, and an ordinary man from Khujirt Sum in our aimag, and rounding up a lot of camps and people and escaping to Xinjiang. A partisan unit was formed to catch these people and return those they had abducted to their pastures. At that time I was just sixteen, and was staying with the head of the sum. A lot of people came there. One day one of them whom I hadn’t seen before came, and in the evening he wrote a letter and on the outside he wrote: “Khalkhbay, Bayan-Ölgii Internal Security Bureau.” I happened to read it out loud. That official gave me a very serious look, and asked me if I could read and write Mongolian, where I had studied, and if I could read and write Arabic script. I said that I could. Then he asked me about my home, my parents, and many other things, then said “well, I’ll see you later” and left.

In the year I was to enter the third grade a message came that the chief of the sum party cell was summoning me. When I arrived and went in, that man was sitting with the chief of the party cell. He said: “you are literate, and you are a member of the Union. We have decided to recruit you to state duties. Your task will be to explain the party and government policies to the people of Khujirt Sum who fled from their pastures. You have been exempted from school, we will inform your mother and father about this. Soon our people will come and get you. You have some clothes? Please get them ready, you will be travelling comfortably with pack animals.” Then after a few nights the chief of the sum party cell called me to his room. I was surprised to see a soldier and an armed officer there. The chief of the cell introduced me, saying “he is the son of a poor family, and can speak and write Mongolian.” That armed officer didn’t even greet me. He just listened silently. Then he said “Ride that horse. We are going to the middle of Bayan-Ölgii, on the way we will go past your home” and we set off. We dropped in to our home, my father said “well, have a safe trip.” In the middle of Ölgii there was hardly anyone related to us, but because there was one person in the aimag party committee, he told me his name. The three of us travelled seventy-five kilometres by the postal road. On the way I think we changed horses three times. When dusk fell we reached Ölgii, and that official said “we don’t need to find anyone, we’ll camp together” and led us on. We entered a yurt, and they brought food and tea for us. That official didn’t say anything. Then at dawn he said “well, comrades, from today onwards we are working together. Our Fifth Border Division is in Bulgan sum in Khovd. They are making preparations for a special unit there.” In this way I became an employee in special operations.

– So what kind of training did you do?

– Well, they taught us all kinds of things. The main thing was the situation over the other side, being honest and loyal, and that under no circumstances could secrets be divulged. They instructed us about bringing back the Kazakhs, Mongols, and Chantous who had left for Xinjiang, and making contact with people with the correct mindset. One day that officer said: “I am Gantogtokh, an official of the Special Unit of the Bulgan Division. From now on the two of us will work together. Don’t tell anyone what you have seen here, and what you have been taught, don’t even mention it to your parents. This involves the security of the motherland.” He made me swear an oath to keep the secret, and took my signature. Then I joined the Bulgan Division. The Special Unit had between forty and fifty Mongols, Kazakhs, and Torguud. The highest official was a man called “Corporation” Düger. Eventually I heard that he got this nickname because he had crossed the border many times under the cover of engaging in trade, taking good quality cloth with him. There were also the officials Baatar Chuluundai, Paalang Raazaan. Then there was also someone called “Kazakh Head” Düger. The reason he was called this was that he had killed a lot of Kazakhs. “Corporation” Düger summoned me and said: “You have become an agent of the Special Unit of the Bulgan Division. Because we struggle for the motherland selflessly, state secrets must be strictly protected.” Our supplies were substantial. We drank high quality cognac, and smoked cigarettes.

– What was your first assignment, and when did you work across the border?

– At the centre of the Division I did all sorts of training. Then one day in spring 1944 the official called me and said: “You are to carry out a task on the other side of the border. Regarding the nature of the assignment, our people will explain to you in the course of the work. Don’t tell anyone where you have come from or what your name is. If anyone asks, tell them ‘I’m an orphan, who has come from Outer Mongolia. Mongols took my father away some years ago, after that we didn’t hear anything from him. My mother passed away a few months ago. Before she died she said to me “Mongolia is no place for you to live, go to the west. In Xinjiang there is an uncle of yours, a man called Sarajan.”‘ So tell them that you have come looking for your uncle.” He sent me off unarmed, with a worn out riding crop.

– Who did you meet with, what kind of duties did you carry out, and what did you learn?

– The officials of the command group took us across the border through a pre-determined location. No one was supposed to see us cross the border, so we crossed after the patrol had passed by. But when we came back, we gave ourselves up to the border guards and travelled like that. So then we crossed the border. From that point on it was troubling to think that we didn’t know whether we would return home again. From time to we felt like looking back towards our native land. But anyway we went on. Across the border we went more than two hundred kilometres until we reached a town called Changji. There we had been told that someone from our side would meet us. Who knows he recognized us? Establishing contact was through a secret word. Someone was following us in that town. It was clear he wanted to know who we were meeting with, and what we were saying. Then that man said our secret contact word. Apart from “Welcome comrades” he didn’t say much else. He led us to a village, where there were Chinese, Kazakhs, and Uyghurs, and he said that they were our agents. He said that some of them had been living there for many years. From those people we received instructions on what to do, and what kind of intelligence to gather. There Baatar Chuluudai and Butabay Sakhaa joined us. They were my superiors. I had heard that B. Sakhaa had been working on special assignments since the 1930s. Officer B. Chuluudai called me and said “now you will perform an assignment” and gave me a thin rolled up document, and instructed me to hide it in my horse’s bridle. He said that a Chantou would meet me in the village. Even when sleeping at night I was not to let the bridle out of my sight. He said that the Chantou would meet me and ask: “Hello comrade, did they give you a letter?” In reply I was to say “Hello comrade, they gave me a letter.”

But I was not to give the letter to that man; he would introduce me to a Mongolian man, to whom I should give the letter. Everything turned out as he had said. Two or three days after arriving in that village a bearded man came along. After greeting me, while we were eating and drinking tea he nodded at me and said “out with it.” I took the bridle out. He asked me what kind of letter it was, and I took it out and gave it to him. Then he didn’t say much. “Coming and going is not necessary, stay in this village. I will bring the reply to the letter myself in a few nights” he said and left. Afterwards he came as he had said. He didn’t say a lot. We drank some kind of alcohol brewed from corn. Meanwhile that man told me he had put his reply letter in a box in such-and-such a place in the mountains. Soon two officials joined us. I don’t know by which route they had come, or what they were doing. I didn’t have the right to ask. Then we went to those mountains, travelling the way we were told, found the reply and went home. As for what was talked about in those letters, I have no idea. I don’t even know whether they were numbers, or letters. I did a lot of things like this. One thing is interesting, in all of our travels we would tie a tight belt around our waists.

– Why did you do that?

When you travel for many nights by horse, your muscles become loose. I only realised that then.

– So you went to meet Osman, would you please talk about the orders to kill him?

– How do you know that?

– I looked at your memoirs.

– In 1945 the East Turkistan Republic was established, with its capital at Ürümchi.{footnote}Not all of these details are correct: the capital of the ETR was Ghulja; Alikhan Törä was from Kirghizstan, but he was ethnically Uzbek.{/footnote} A learned Kirghiz man of over fifty named Alikhan was appointed prime minister of that state. We and the Russians took part in setting up its administrative institutions. A Mongol lama named Taivan was included in the government. Alikhan appointed Osman as governor of the Altai Aimag. Osman’s intention was to create an Islamic republic and become president himself. When he was unable to do this, he became angry and rebelled, joining the side of the Guomindang. Because of this our side decided to kill him. The Russians were thinking the same thing. We tried to do it twice but didn’t succeed. One day the official Sakhaa called me in. I entered and he said “I suppose you know Osman? Have you heard that he has rebelled? Recently it has been reported that he has been blinded. Go over there, and find out whether this information is true or not”. Indeed, I had seen that man a couple of times previously. So, naturally I went. I met with people, and found out where he had run off to. I found out that he was in a big mountain called Ulaanbay. I went pretending to be that orphan who was looking for his uncle. There were a lot of guards, when they asked me where I was going, I told them that story. Osman Batur might know my uncle, I said that I wanted to find out news from him.

So they let me through. He was at a pass in the mountains, catching mares. There was a strange thing nearby that place. It was like a bird but not a bird, but winged, and with feet. Osman had three wives, they say that his youngest wife was the wife of his younger brother. Her name was Bayaan. I went into her yurt, Osman Batur was sitting down. He had a middle-sized frame; when I looked closely, I could see that he was slightly limping. He was someone who couldn’t look you straight in the eye. We greeted each other, and I told him my reason for coming. Then he said “I haven’t heard of a person like that, but I feel like I should know.” Then when I went out I asked about that thing that looked like a bird. They told me it was a plane. It was the Guomindang; they had heard about Osman’s blind eye and sent two doctors. But they said that those two couldn’t cure his eye.

They used to say that Osman was a dangerous bandit. In truth, he never attacked our side. But those men who fought in his name carried out raids and robberies.

– Why weren’t you able to accomplish the task of killing him?

– The task of killing Osman was assigned to Dandar Baatar. At that time Dandar Baatar was in prison. Together with him, two men with sentences of twenty-five years were chosen from some sixty people who had been convicted of a crime. On top of this they took four Kazakh soldiers, and had them do more than a month of preparations in the mountains. On top of these from the Special Unit of the Bulgan Division four of us were included: myself (Seilkhan), Zurmaan, Avirkhas, and Agnaan. Then Tsedev, an official of the Bulgan Division’s Executive Committee, led us across the border. We learned that Osman was hiding out in a tall forested mountain to the west of Changji. We rode out at dusk. We reached that mountain and the rest went on from there on foot, they told me to stay watching the horses. “Listen for the sound of gunfire, be vigilant” they said and headed off. Night fell, and they still hadn’t returned. After dozing off for a bit, the sound of gunfire rang out. Soon they came running back and we mounted and rode off. As for what happened, they had clashed with scouts and shot two of them dead. They said they had no choice but to come back when a lot of people from that side had attacked. I suppose that was how it was.

– So how about the second attempt?

– Because the first job wasn’t carried out, the next one was planned in considerable detail. That job was assigned to a Kazakh named Sagaday. He had been denounced on false charges, and locked up in prison. He was tending the camels at the labour camp one day when they called him in. I suppose they told him: “You are guilty, but there is a service that you can perform. If you carry out this task well, we will clear you of charges.” They locked him up briefly with a bandit who had been caught and brought back from Xinjiang. Then they let them escape together. It was thought that that bandit would probably go straight to Osman. They say that he said “Thanks to you I have got my life back. I will tell this to Osman Batur.” So they went to where Osman was. While travelling by night that man’s gun went off, and Osman’s guards who heard the shot couldn’t help but be roused. In this way the job wasn’t finished. According to what Sagaday said, that bandit deliberately sounded the alarm.

But our side blamed Sagaday, saying that because he was a Muslim he had given the alarm on purpose. After that this man disappeared. But the Chinese caught Osman, and executed him publicly in Ürümchi.

– How long did you work on special assignment?

– I worked from 1943 to 1949. In 1949 the revolution in China was victorious, and China’s Eighth Route Army entered Xinjiang, so we left. Eventually I learned Morse code and worked in secret army communications in the Khovd and Bayan-Ölgii Aimags. Then from 1959 to 1990 I worked in the weather bureau. Now I’m a pensioner, and a grandfather.