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Heavy security is the new normal in China's Tibet

March 8, 2010

The Associated Press
March 7, 2010

LHASA, China -- The troops with automatic rifles
patrolling the Tibetan quarter of the capital of
Chinese-controlled Tibet are as ever-present as Buddhist pilgrims.

Two years after Lhasa erupted in a riot that set
off anti-government protests across Tibetan areas
of China, heavy security is the new normal.
Helmeted paramilitary police stand guard behind
spiked barriers at some street corners. Men on
rooftops train binoculars on the square and
streets in the Barkhor, the heart of the old city that surrounds a holy temple.

Their presence is so common that people in Lhasa
were startled last week when the uniformed
patrols seemingly disappeared. In their place,
fit young men with military crewcuts — some
wearing yellow and black track suits — marched in
groups. The reason: a rare visit to the tense
Tibetan capital by foreign reporters arranged by the government.

"Walking in the streets of the Barkhor and other
parts of Lhasa, I realized all the army people
had become plain-clothed overnight. Only today I
learned that it was because the journalists were
visiting," said a Tibetan woman who declined to
give her name for fear of official retribution.

This week opens an always edgy time in Lhasa: two
weeks of anniversaries marking a Tibetan revolt
in 1959 that failed, led Tibet's theocratic ruler
the Dalai Lama to flee into exile and brought the
long-isolated, Himalayan region under Beijing's
direct control. In 2008, demonstrations that
sputtered for days flared into a riot on March
14. Sympathy protests spread to Tibetan
communities across a quarter of west China — the
widest uprising against Chinese rule in a half-century.

Many Tibetan areas have lived under smothering
security ever since and are unsteadily struggling
to find normalcy amid the intrusive policing and
a mix of government threats and economic
incentives to toe the line. Chinese Premier Wen
Jiabao announced Friday that the government will
speed up economic development in Tibet and the
heavily Muslim area of Xinjiang, which was hit by
communal violence in July that further challenged China's ethnic policies.

Sporadic protests recur in Tibetan areas, as do
arrests. The government continues to vilify the
Dalai Lama and his exiled government, whom
Beijing accuses of fomenting the discord, and to
purge monasteries and nunneries, where support
for the Dalai Lama and Tibetan independence run high.

At a news conference Sunday, China-appointed
governor Padma Choling renewed the verbal
attacks. "The Dalai's lies to the world and media
have adversely affected Tibet's development," he said.

Government officials defend the actions and say
that Tibetans' loyalty to Beijing grew in the
wake of the shocking violence of the riot, which
left 22 dead by official count and is known as
the 3-14 riot for the day it occurred.

"Because of the 3-14 incident, the people in
Tibet understand more clearly the true nature of
the Dalai clique. They are 'splittists' in
nature. The people understand more that
'splittism' brings misfortune and ethnic unity
brings happiness. So currently, Tibet is enjoying
increased ethnic unity and harmony. Everything is
moving in the right direction," Hao Peng, the
Chinese vice governor of Tibet, told the visiting journalists.

During their weeklong trip to Lhasa and the
eastern Tibet town of Nyingchi, the foreign
reporters were closely monitored and often
followed if they managed to slip their government
escorts, making candid interviews difficult.
Paramilitary police on guard duty forced a
reporter to delete photographs of them. Pilgrims
refused to answer questions about whether they believed in the Dalai Lama.

When a similar question was posed to Basang, a
39-year-old farmer in Sangzhulin village outside
Lhasa, an official interrupted the translator to
make sure the right answer was given: she prefers
the Panchen Lama, a high-ranking cleric selected
by Beijing. "I don't know what the Dalai Lama
does," the official interpreted Basang as saying.

Still Lhasa residents seem grateful if
begrudgingly so for the intense security. The
city carries physical scars from the riot; the
Yishion clothing store where five young women
burned to death has left standing its charred shop front as a memorial.

Though Tibetans dislike the denunciation of their
revered Dalai Lama, they and Chinese residents
said violence may reignite if troops were
withdrawn. Unaddressed since the riot are its
underlying grievances, said one Tibetan man who
declined to give his name because he was worried
about official retribution. Among the gripes are
restrictions on religion and worries that the Han
Chinese majority were benefiting more than Tibetans from economic growth.

Tibetans too are benefiting from China's buoyant
economy and from the more than 154 billion yuan
($21 billion) the government has poured into the
region this decade. Nyingchi, a prosperous town
at the bottom of a valley, is experiencing a
tourism boom. An airport, still a rarity on the
Tibetan plateau, opened three years ago.

Farmers in nearby villages have turned their
homes into bed and breakfasts, while still
farming barley and herding yaks. In Gong Zhong,
the first village in Tibet to get phone service,
40-year-old Shilou used a government loan to turn
part of her house into an inn, charging mostly
Chinese tourists 25 yuan, or $4, a night. Posters
of communist patriarch Mao Zedong and current
President Hu Jintao hang on the walls, hung with
the white silk scarves Tibetans offer as a sign of respect.

Dawa Dunzhu is a success story. With only a
primary school education, the Tibetan went off to
the northwestern industrial city of Lanzhou to
work on construction projects. With the money he
earned plus a government loan, he started the
Tibet Dashi Group Co. that makes specialty food
products like mineral water from the glacier melt
of Mount Everest. His organic walnut oil is made
with nuts grown by Tibetan farmers and is sold in
up-market food stores in Beijing.

"This is a really unique Tibetan resource that
wasn't used before. Now we are taking advantage of it," said Dawa Dunzhu.

In recent months, the communist government began
tweaking its economic policies toward Tibet,
moving away from the big infrastructure projects
that are seen to encourage Chinese migration and
targeting funds into the pockets of farmers and
poorer Tibetans. Rather than winning over
Tibetans, however, experts contend the new
policies are still too top-down and fail to give
Tibetans the kind of say that would make them
feel less like second-class citizens.

"Tibetan resentments are not necessarily about
development, but about disempowered development
and about being a dominated and subordinated
minority," said Andrew Fischer of the Institute
of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam.

The bitterness is unlikely to go away soon. Some
in Lhasa seem weary of the tensions whether
caused by disgruntled Tibetans or government
actions. "As long as those few people don't
spread rumors or make the situation worse in the
future, we'll have better cooperation and unity,"
said Neyma Tsering, a retiree.
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