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A Tibetan Intifadeh Against China

March 15, 2008

Times Magazine
Mar. 14, 2008

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

The anniversary protests had passed peacefully — until now. "The
Chinese response had been extraordinarily restrained, which is
amazing," says Robert Barnett, professor of Contemporary Tibetan
Studies at Columbia University. Barnett and others say that
paramilitary police blocked at least three attempts by monks from each
of the three monasteries to enter the capital. Later the monasteries
were surrounded by armed police. Some monks responded in one monastery
by reportedly going on hunger strike while there were reports of
attempted suicides at another.

That pattern of protest was a repeat of the last time Lhasa saw
large-scale anti-Beijing demonstrations in March 1989, an escalating
series of clashes that ended with troops killing scores of protesters
and the declaration of martial law.

The Chinese administration of Tibet in the last two years or so has
been particularly harsh and provocative, says Barnett, who attributes
the tone to the Communist Party Secretary for Tibet, Zhang Qingli. "He
is the Rottweiler of the Chinese establishment and has been extremely
provocative. He even said once that the Communist Party was Buddha,
not the Dalai Lama."

Other observers pointed to the opening of a new train line linking
Beijing with Lhasa in July 2006 as a turning point. Whereas previously
the only access to Lhasa had been through a bone-shaking, two day bus
ride or an exorbitant plane ride, the cheaply priced train has doubled
the number of tourists entering Tibet and made access much easier for
tens of thousands of Chinese seeking to cash in on a local economy
juiced by billions of dollars of investment from Beijing. Chinese
already outnumber ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa, and many Tibetans felt
that they might end up as strangers in their own country, a fate
suffered by Mongolians in Chinese-administered Inner Mongolia.

"It used to be the Tibetans were protesting against Chinese rule,"
says Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher with New York-based Human
Rights Watch. "But now they're protesting against the destruction of
their whole civilization, their whole world. They feel that they are
doomed if they don't do something. And when people feel that
desperation there's no knowing what it could lead them to do."

That desperation may only increase, as Beijing appears unwilling to
making any conciliatory move. In a familiar phrasing, Foreign Ministry
spokesman Qin Gang bitterly criticized the Dalai Lama on March 13,
blaming the protests on "a political conspiracy schemed by the Dalai
group, aiming to separate Tibet from China and to destroy the normal,
harmonious and peaceful life of the Tibetan people."

Beijing is particularly incapable of flexibility when it comes to
policy toward ethnic areas of the country because it fears that any
sign of weakness could open up the floodgates and lead to widespread
demand for autonomy in other areas such as the Muslim province of
Xinjiang. "There is just no safety valve for ethnic issues in China,"
says Bequelin. "It remains one of the most retrograde areas of policy.
They just don't have the tools to handle something like this."
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