Friday, March 14, 2008

China Uses Force to Stop Tibetan Protests

Perhaps seizing a moment in history when the Chinese government was less likely to use deadly force to put down protests, Tibetans have launched an intifadeh against China. All images are from Reuters.

Fresh protests broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Friday, with indications that what had until now been peaceful demonstrations had turned violent. There were no confirmed reports of casualties, but residents, academics and activists said there were clashes between Tibetans and Chinese security forces and that police cars had been burned and a large market was also in flames. Other reports had gunfire and bodies in the streets. Whatever the outcome, though, it seemed to be a turning point in the history of Tibet and perhaps also China. "This is massive," said one Tibet specialist who was in touch with many Lhasa residents, "it is the intifadeh. And it will be a long, long time before this ends, whatever happens today or tomorrow."

While the scale of the protests and the temper of the reaction by Chinese authorities remain to be seen, the outbreak of violence was an ominous sign for Tibet, where resentment against Chinese rule has been simmering for years. An already tense situation has been exacerbated by China's sensitivity about its human rights image ahead of the staging of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August. Some observers argue that what appeared to be carefully planned and executed protests — the first on such a scale in nearly two decades — were likely deliberately timed to take advantage of the media attention focused on the upcoming Games.

The demonstrations began on March 9 when hundreds of monks from three large monasteries on the outskirts of the city, Drepung, Sera and Ganden, attempted to enter Lhasa to commemorate an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 that was ruthlessly suppressed with hundreds of protesters reportedly killed. The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee Lhasa for refuge in India, where he has lived in exile ever since. (Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1949 when the Communists finally claimed victory in the country's prolonged civil war).

The anniversary protests had passed peacefully — until now.

While Time didn't report any deaths, Reuters has. And of course, China is blaming the Dalai Lama for the riots.

Independence protesters burned shops and cars in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on Friday and Chinese police were reported to have shot dead at least two people, in the fiercest unrest in the region for two decades.

China accused followers of the Dalai Lama of "masterminding" the uprising, which shatters its carefully-cultivated image of national harmony in the buildup to the Beijing Olympic Games.

A spokesman for the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader called the allegation "absolutely baseless". The Dalai Lama appealed to China to stop using force and begin dialogue. Similar protests in the past have been crushed with gunfire and mass arrests.

Peaceful marches by Buddhist monks in recent days have given way to angry crowds confronting riot police.

"Now it's very chaotic outside," an ethnic Tibetan resident said by telephone. "People have been burning cars and motorbikes and buses. There is smoke everywhere and they have been throwing rocks and breaking windows. We're scared."

Radio Free Asia, quoting witnesses, said Chinese police fired on protesters, killing at least two. A source told Reuters two Tibetans were shot dead near the Ramoche Monastery near Lhasa. The deaths could not be verified.

Finally, here is more from the New York Times:

The defiance reported this week in Lhasa is highly unusual. Security is heavy there, and the penalty for protesting is harsh. News of the protests has been censored in the Chinese news media, and Beijing does not allow foreign journalists to travel to Lhasa without permission. But accounts from Tibetan advocacy groups, from the United States-financed Radio Free Asia and from tourists’ postings on the Internet suggest that protests emerged from three of the most famous monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism.

Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University who has communicated with Tibetan exiles, said the initial incident occurred Monday when about 400 monks left Drepung Loseling Monastery intending to march five miles west to the city center. Police officers stopped the march at the halfway point and arrested 50 or 60 monks.

But Mr. Barnett said the remaining monks held the equivalent of a sit-down strike and were joined by an additional 100 monks from Drepung.

“They were demanding specific changes on religious restrictions in the monastery,” Mr. Barnett said. He said monks wanted the authorities to ease rules on “patriotic education” in which monks are required to study government propaganda and write denunciations of the Dalai Lama.

On Tuesday morning, the Drepung monks apparently agreed to return to the monastery.

But another protest was under way in the heart of the city, outside the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple in Tibet. About a dozen monks from the Sera Monastery staged a pro-independence demonstration, waving a Tibetan flag. Police officers arrested the monks. Foreign tourists posted video on the Internet of officers shooing onlookers away.

The arrests set off another protest on Tuesday. Witnesses told Radio Free Asia that 500 or 600 monks poured out of the Sera Monastery, about two miles north of the Jokhang Temple. They shouted slogans and demanded the release of their fellow monks.

“Free our people, or we won’t go back!” the monks chanted, Radio Free Asia reported. “We want an independent Tibet!”

Witnesses said the police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.

A protest was reported on Wednesday at the Ganden Monastery, 35 miles east of Lhasa.

Radio Free Asia reported Thursday that two monks at Drepung had attempted suicide.

The protests were timed to coincide with the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 Tibet uprising that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India. Mr. Barnett said they were the largest in Lhasa since 1989, when protests by monks from Drepung and Sera led to a bloody clash with Chinese security forces.

He said he doubted that the protests were coordinated, though he said the small group of Sera monks arrested Monday must have anticipated a confrontation. Their photographs have already been forwarded to Tibetan exiles in India and posted on the Internet by groups that support independence for Tibet.

He said that Chinese troops seemed to be more restrained than in the past, even as the protesters took the bold step of waving the Tibetan flag.

The Olympics also have emboldened protesters outside China. Tibetan exiles in northern India who vowed this week to march to Lhasa over six months to protest China’s control of their homeland were arrested Thursday. They then began a hunger strike that they said would go on until they were released.

Although some experts seem hopeful that China may be forced to change their Tibet policy as a result of these protests, I simply do not see that happening. Too bad.

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