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Tibet protests a dilemma for China

March 16, 2008

Officials want to quell strife but know world's eyes on Olympic host
Chicago Tribune

BEIJING, March 15 — The largest protests in Tibet in two decades pose
a political dilemma for Beijing as it struggles to contain the unrest
that coursed through the capital, Lhasa, on Friday, leaving shops and
vehicles in flames and reportedly at least 10 people dead.

The Chinese government, already facing international pressure to
improve its human-rights record before the Summer Olympics in Beijing,
confronts two unappealing options: permit protests to continue and
risk broader unrest or clamp down and face scrutiny and censure from
the world.

Varying accounts suggest that Tibet's three main monasteries have been
surrounded by police and troop carriers, foreign tourists are confined
to hotels, and ethnic Chinese-run businesses have been targeted for
damage from angry Tibetans. Some Buddhist monks reportedly are on
hunger strike and, in two cases, have attempted suicide to protest
police handling of the demonstrations.

Scenes of smoke-shrouded chaos in Lhasa were described in eyewitness
accounts and posted in photos on the Internet, and signs emerged that
the unrest may have spread to other places. At least 10 people were
burned to death in the violence, according to a state media report.

The scale and details of the events, however, remain hard to verify.
The U.S. Embassy in Beijing "has received firsthand reports from
American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications
of violence," according to an advisory Friday. The embassy urged
Americans in Tibet and especially in Lhasa to "seek safe havens" and
"remain indoors to the extent possible."

As of late Friday, much of Lhasa was under a curfew. With only
scattered reports of gunfire, Tibet experts said it appears, for the
moment, that public scrutiny may have stalled or prevented a more
forceful crackdown, though it is not clear how protesters will be
dealt with after the initial violence subsides.

"I think we are seeing [public relations] considerations and I think
that's helpful. They haven't used much shooting," said Robbie Barnett,
the program coordinator in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia
University. "It's progress, but we're not yet seeing signs that it
translates into open-mindedness and not notions of punishment and

Tainted Olympics?
China has sent stern warnings that it will not permit unrest to
undermine the Olympic Games. "Anyone who wants to sabotage the Games
will get nowhere," Qiangba Puncog, the top government official in
Tibet, was quoted as saying this week in state media.

With five months before the opening ceremony Aug. 8, the clashes in
Tibet deal another blow to Chinese leaders already struggling to
defuse foreign criticism that threatens to taint what China hopes will
be a showcase of the nation's integration with the world.

Activists have brought pressure on corporate sponsors, foreign heads
of state who plan to attend and celebrities involved in planning. Last
month, Britain's Prince Charles said he would not attend the Games in
protest of China's treatment of Tibet, and Steven Spielberg withdrew
as an artistic adviser, blaming China's continuing support of the
government of Sudan, which has failed to quell violence in its Darfur

The tension in Tibet comes just days after the U.S. State Department
removed China from a list of the world's worst human-rights violators,
despite objections from human-rights groups. However, China's "overall
human-rights record remained poor" in 2007, according to the State
Department's annual report released Tuesday, which cited stricter
controls on the Internet and the news media and limits on freedom of
religion in Tibet and the northwestern region of Xinjiang.

In a statement that also may reflect, unintentionally perhaps, the
prospect of a wider uprising, President Hu Jintao told Communist Party
officials this week: "Stability in Tibet concerns the stability of the
country, and safety in Tibet concerns the safety of the country."

The protests have widened steadily since Monday, when police scattered
and arrested protesters celebrating the anniversary of the Tibetan
rebellion against Chinese rule in 1959. The protests in Lhasa—which
began as part of a coordinated day of rallies in Nepal, India and
elsewhere—have become the largest political demonstrations there since
1989, when Beijing quelled demonstrations by imposing martial law.

Tibet activists abroad are steeling for a major confrontation. Tsewang
Rigzin, president of the Tibetan Youth League based in Dharamsala in
northern India, said Tibetan exiles are determined make Tibet a major
international focus as the Olympics approach.

"We are taking chances. We know how the Chinese have treated Tibetans
in the past," he said. "But with the spotlight on them with the
Olympics, we want to test them. We want them to show their true
colors. That's why we're pushing this."

Speaking by phone from Dharamsala, where Tibet's government-in-exile
is based, Rigzin said Tibetan exiles were particularly annoyed at
China's plans to take the Olympic torch to the top of Mt. Everest
before the Games.

The world's highest mountain "belongs to Tibet, not China," Rigzin
said. "They're trying to show the world Tibet is part of China, so
we're shining a spotlight on the brutal occupation."

'Raising the issue'
Rigzin suggested that Tibetan protesters had expected a Chinese
crackdown in Lhasa. "Freedom comes for a price," said Rigzin, a native
of Washington state who moved to Dharamsala in October to take over
his organization's presidency. "We realize we can't achieve our goals
overnight, but we have to start raising the issue."

Rigzin has this week been participating in a protest march from
Dharamsala to Lhasa, part of a series of international protests.
Indian authorities, fearful the march could upset officials in
neighboring China, on Thursday arrested more than 100 of the Tibetan
exile marchers after they ignored protests not to leave the district
around Dharamsala.

Facing similar protests in Nepal, police dispersed demonstrators in Katmandu.

The unrest in Lhasa began Monday with a march by 500 monks from the
Drepung monastery. They were followed by protests from monks at the
Lhasa-area Sera and Ganden monasteries.

Security forces used tear gas to disperse the crowd, according to
Radio Free Asia, which also cited "authoritative sources in the
region" to report that two monks from Drepung monastery "are in
critical condition after stabbing their wrists and chests" in a show
of protest. Evan Osnos reported from Beijing and Laurie Goering from
New Delhi.
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