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Monk protests in Tibet draw Chinese security

March 14, 2008

Interntional Herald Tribune
March 14, 2008

BEIJING: Chinese security forces were reportedly surrounding three
monasteries outside Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, on Thursday after
hundreds of monks took to the streets this week in what are believed
to be the largest Tibetan protests against Chinese rule in two
decades.

The turmoil in Lhasa occurred at a politically delicate time for
China, which is facing increasing criticism over its human rights
record as it prepares to play host to the Olympic Games in August and
is seeking to appear harmonious to the outside world.

Beijing has kept a tight lid on dissent before the Games. But people
with grievances against the governing Communist Party have tried to
promote their causes when top officials may be wary of cracking down
by using force.

Qin Gang, a spokesman for China's Foreign Ministry, confirmed Thursday
that protests had erupted in Lhasa, but declined to provide details.
He described the situation as stable.

"In the past couple of days, a few monks in Lhasa have made some
disturbances in an effort to cause unrest," Qin said Thursday at a
news conference. "Thanks to the efforts of the local government and
the democratic administration of the temples, the situation in Lhasa
has been stabilized."

Tibet was taken militarily by China in 1951 and has remained
contentious, particularly because of the bitter relations between the
Communist Party and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of
Tibetan Buddhism. Sporadic talks between China and the Dalai Lama's
representatives have produced no results, and Beijing continues to
condemn him as a "splitist" determined to sever the region's ties to
China. The Dalai Lama has said that he accepts Chinese rule but that
Tibetans need greater autonomy to practice their religion.

China plans to have the Olympic torch carried into Tibet over Mount
Everest — a route that has brought protests from many Tibet advocacy
groups. Fearing more demonstrations, officials said they would
prohibit climbing on the north face of Everest until after the torch
ceremony.

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 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," 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. Barnett said they were the largest in Lhasa since 1987 and
1988, 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.
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