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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Violence in Tibet as Monks Clash With the Police

March 16, 2008

The New York Times
March 15, 2008

BEIJING — Violence erupted Friday morning in a busy market area of the
Tibetan capital, Lhasa, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans
brawled with Chinese security forces in bloody clashes. Witnesses said
angry Tibetan crowds burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least
one tourist bus. State media said at least 10 people died.

The chaotic scene was the latest, and most violent, confrontation in a
series of protests that began on Monday and now represent a major
challenge to the ruling Communist Party as it prepares to play host to
the Olympic Games in August. By Saturday morning, Chinese armored
vehicles were reportedly patrolling the center of the city.

Beijing is facing the most serious and prolonged demonstrations in Tibet
since the late 1980s, when it suppressed a rebellion there with lethal
force that left scores, and possibly hundreds, of ethnic Tibetans dead.
The leadership is clearly alarmed that a wave of negative publicity
could disrupt its elaborate plans for the Olympics and its hopes that
the games will showcase its rising influence and prosperity rather than
domestic turmoil.

Thousands of Buddhists in neighboring India and Nepal took to the
streets Friday in solidarity. Concerned that the protests might spread
elsewhere in China, the authorities appeared to be moving the military
police into other regions with large Tibetan populations.

Roughly 1,000 special police officers were deployed in the town of
Bamei, in Sichuan Province, the site of a temple sacred to Tibetans,
witnesses said by telephone on Friday. Residents in Lhasa, reached by
telephone, said the authorities had placed much of the city under a
curfew by Friday night while military police officers were blocking many
city streets. One resident reported seeing armored vehicles in the
center of the city.

The United States Embassy in Beijing warned American citizens on Friday
not to travel to Lhasa. The embassy said it had “received firsthand
reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other
indications of violence.”

In a meeting in Beijing on Friday, the United States ambassador to
China, Clark Randt, urged Chinese officials to act with restraint, “and
not resort to use of force in dealing with the protesters,” the State
Department spokesman, Sean McCormack, told reporters.

The Chinese authorities blamed the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual
leader of Tibet, for the violence and said the government would maintain
stability in Lhasa. “The government of Tibet Autonomous Region said
Friday there had been enough evidence to prove that the recent sabotage
was ‘organized, premeditated and masterminded’ by the Dalai clique,”
reported Xinhua, the Chinese government’s official news agency.

The Dalai Lama released a statement on Friday calling on both sides to
avoid violence and appealing to China’s leaders to “address the long
simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the
Tibetan people.” A spokesman for the Dalai Lama called China’s
accusations “absolutely baseless.”

The situation in Lhasa represents a complicated predicament for the
Communist Party, which is now holding its annual meeting of the National
People’s Congress in Beijing. Party leaders are already grappling with
growing criticism of China’s domestic human rights record and its ties
to Sudan, which the United States has accused of waging a genocidal
campaign in its Darfur region.

In the past China has not hesitated to crush major protests in Tibet or
to jail disobedient monks. President Hu Jintao, who is also the general
secretary of the Communist Party, served as party boss in Tibet during a
violent crackdown in 1989. His support for the bloody suppression of
unrest that year earned him the good will of Deng Xiaoping, then the
paramount leader, and led directly to his elevation to the Politburo
Standing Committee and eventually to China’s top leadership posts.

But Chinese leaders may be more reluctant to order such heavy-handed
tactics as Beijing prepares for the Olympics. On Friday, different
accounts emerged about how the Chinese military police in Lhasa handled
the demonstrations.

Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit news agency financed by the United States
government, quoted Tibetan witnesses who described police officers
firing into crowds of protesters and killing at least two people in the
city’s ancient Barkhor area. On Saturday morning, Radio Free Asia quoted
witnesses who described seeing dead bodies around Lhasa.

Later on Saturday Xinhua reported 10 deaths had been confirmed.

A Chinese resident in Lhasa, reached by telephone, said stories were
circulating among local Chinese that soldiers had been wounded and had
not been allowed to fight back against Tibetans throwing rocks. Another
Chinese man living near the Barkhor area said family members had told
him that two soldiers died and that Tibetans were beating Chinese
residents with iron rods.

Friday’s sharp escalation in violence, and the sense of dread described
by several residents, came a day after China’s Foreign Ministry told
reporters that the situation in Lhasa had stabilized. The protest
started Monday when Buddhist monks began peaceful protests against
religious restrictions by Chinese authorities. The police arrested 50 or
60 monks, but other protests followed Tuesday and Wednesday as monks in
two different monasteries took to the streets.

The apparent epicenter of Friday’s protests was the Tromsikhang Market,
a large, concrete structure built in the Barkhor area by the Chinese
authorities in the early 1990s. “It’s chaos in the streets,” said a
person who answered the telephone at a bread shop near the market.

What actually set off the violence is unclear, as accounts differed
between Chinese and Tibetan residents. Monks from the Ramoche Temple, a
short walk from the market, reportedly began to march in the Barkhor
area. The Ramoche monks intended to protest the rough treatment of monks
who had marched earlier in the week, according to a Tibetan rights
advocate in the United States who has communicated with people in Lhasa.

When police officers began beating the monks, Tibetans rioted in the
Barkhor area, the advocate said. Angry mobs set fire to a police car and
a store owned by a Chinese shopkeeper, said the advocate, who refused to
be publicly identified for fear of reprisals.

But a Chinese travel agent in Lhasa, reached by telephone, said Tibetans
had instigated the violence and set fire to an empty tour bus parked
outside the Ramoche Temple. Another Chinese resident described 50 or 60
young Tibetans burning stores owned by Chinese merchants as well as two
fire trucks and two police cars.

“I saw someone who was dead and covered in a sheet,” the Chinese
resident said in a telephone interview. “The Tromsikhang market was
destroyed, except for the shops owned by Tibetans. I heard a soldier
shouting, ‘Please go home and stop fighting!’ ”

News agencies also reported clashes between monks from Ramoche Temple
and military police officers. “The monks are still protesting,” one
witness told The Associated Press. “Police and army cars were burned.
There are people crying. Hundreds of people, including monks and
civilians, are in the protests.”

Radio Free Asia reported that Tibetan protesters were waving traditional
white scarves and shouting, “Free Tibet.” The agency said the riots
began about 10 a.m. and had largely quieted down by 3:30 p.m., after the
paramilitary police were mobilized.

Meanwhile, anxious tourists stranded in Lhasa posted worried comments on
online forums for travelers. “The situation seems to be very nervous and
paranoid up here,” wrote one person in broken and misspelled English in
a chat room sponsored by the Lonely Planet tour guide. “There is police
and military everwher. Suddenly you would see policeman running and
rushig somewhere”

The ethnic friction evident in Friday’s violence has long simmered just
below the surface in Lhasa. For more than two decades, a steady influx
of Chinese migrants has transformed and stratified the city. A newer,
Chinese section of Lhasa is focused along Beijing Road and is lined with
shops and concrete buildings.

But the older Tibetan neighborhoods emanate from the Jokhang, the most
sacred temple in Tibet, and the Potala Palace, the former residence of
the Dalai Lama. Tibetans also have complained that Chinese merchants now
control most of the tourist shops in the Barkhor area.

The protests in Lhasa coincided with the anniversary of a failed 1959
Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule that forced the Dalai Lama to flee
to India. Groups that promote Tibetan independence have marked the
anniversary with demonstrations around the world, including in India,
where a group of advocates tried to march to Tibet.

But the unexpected demonstrations in Lhasa are the largest Tibetan
protests against Chinese rule since 1989. Military police officers and
soldiers are now reportedly surrounding the three monasteries that were
at the center of the protests earlier this week. Two monks have
reportedly tried to kill themselves, while pro-Tibetan groups say others
have started a hunger strike.

In its travel warning, the United States Embassy in Beijing advised
American tourists in Lhasa to “seek safe havens in hotels and other
buildings and remain indoors.”

“All care should be taken to avoid unnecessary movement within the city
until the situation is under control,” it said.

On Friday night, the Chinese resident living in the Barkhor area said
his family was huddled at home with the lights turned off. He said he
could hear shouting on the streets outside and feared for the safety of
his family.

Huang Yuanxi, Zhang Jing and Jake Hooker contributed research from
Beijing, and Steven Lee Myers and Graham Bowley contributed reporting
from New York. Somini Sengupta contributed reporting from New Delhi.
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