When gunfire began in Almaty, Kazakhstan, Minh Tuan’s family hid in the house, telling each other not to open the door for anyone.
Tuan is vice president of the Vietnamese Association in Kazakhstan and has lived in the country since 1994.
He said: “I was informed that another riot had erupted on the evening of Jan. 4. At the time I had gone with my wife and children to a water park near the ring road in Almaty city.
“When I saw many cars with their number plates removed, I felt the situation was unusual, and immediately took my wife and children home”.
Riots first erupted in Kazakhstan on Jan. 2 in response to the government’s decision to discontinue subsidies for liquefied natural gas (LPG), which effectively doubled its price in many areas.
The protest movement then quickly spread to Almaty, the country’s largest city, before escalating into the worst riot in decades.
Tuan said he was shocked by the scale and intensity of the violence, given that Kazakhstan is a peaceful country. In the nearly three decades he has lived in Almaty, he has seen only a few protests, most of them nonviolent.
When his family returned home on the night of Jan. 4, he became aware of the gravity of the situation as he watched TV news about clashes between protesters and troops and the presence of extremists. Shops were being smashed and police cars were being burned.
“We contacted everyone in the Vietnamese community in the city and advised them to stay at home, avoid mass gatherings and strictly adhere to the country’s policies to ensure their safety”.
He said the sound of gunfire caused many people to panic. Police and firefighters were nearly impossible to contact since they were all focused on responding to the riots.
His family “hunkered down” at home for safety. When information about looting began to appear, he warned people in the community not to open the door for anyone, including the police, if they could not present proper documents since looters could masquerade as cops.
“The following two nights were even worse. Fortunately, the Vietnamese community in the city is still safe. I feel more secure now that the situation has been significantly controlled”.
He was speaking VnExpress by phone and the call was constantly interrupted because of a poor connection.
“It is possible that the unstable signal is the result of Kazakh authorities responding to the riots and tracking down terrorists. For the past week Almaty residents could only go online for around three hours a day”.
Duc Ton, a lecturer at Nazarbayev University, said the situation in the capital Nur-Sultan was not as bad as in Almaty.
“After a peaceful protest on Jan. 4 in the old quarter of the capital, the police and army were deployed. The government declared a national emergency, closed shopping centers and banned mass gatherings. However, people could still travel normally”.
People could go online for two to four hours a day to get the news, but a poor Internet connection constantly disrupted banks’ payment systems, causing people to rush to withdraw cash.
Azhar Karatayeva, an office worker living in the Astana region, said she was not too surprised by the wave of protests, because the plan to increase gas prices was strongly opposed by the public since the beginning.
“I expected conflicts would occur, but did not expect it to be so severe. I was very worried for my loved ones and heartbroken when I read the news about the casualties.
“My loved ones were unable to leave the house during the days of emergency, but things seem to be slowly improving now”.
The riots were quelled after the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) began to send a peacekeeping force to Kazakhstan on Jan. 6 at the request of President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
The peacekeepers were tasked with protecting key facilities, while the country’s security forces dealt with the escalating violence.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs announced on Jan. 10 that basic order had been restored after authorities carried out an operation to clear and kill “26 armed criminals” and arrest nearly 9,000 people in connection with the violence.
At least 16 security officers and 164 Kazakhs were killed during the week of riots. More than 100 businesses and banks were looted, more than 400 vehicles were set on fire and property worth nearly $200 million might have been damaged.
Ton said Nazarbayev University may have to postpone the spring semester opening to Jan. 24 due to the state of emergency, but is optimistic that life would return to normal soon after security is restored.
Tuan said Almaty is returning to normalcy and he was able to return to the office after one week.
But even on the worst days during the past week, his family did not think about leaving Kazakhstan.
“The chaotic situation is a story no one wants,” he said.
“We want to stay with the people of Kazakhstan through this difficult period”.
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