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The most serious unrest in years shakes the Tibetan capital

March 14, 2008

The Economist
March 13, 2008

IF THERE is one city in China where the authorities are truly worried
about serious unrest that might spoil the Olympic games in Beijing in
August, it is the Tibetan capital, Lhasa. Around the ancient
monasteries and in the narrow streets of the city's old quarter,
filled with the shuffle and drone of pilgrims murmuring their prayers,
residents say that security is being tightened.

It usually is around this time of year. March 10th is often tense
because it is the anniversary of a revolt in 1959 against Chinese rule
in Tibet that was crushed by the Chinese army. The region's spiritual
leader, the Dalai Lama, fled with many of his followers and has been
living in exile in Dharamsala in India ever since. But this year there
are reports that Tibetan monks, often at the forefront of anti-Chinese
dissent, are becoming particularly restive.

Such reports are difficult to verify. The authorities rarely allow
visits by Western journalists. Chinese officials say that regulations
introduced last year aimed at reducing bureaucratic hurdles to
reporting in China before and during the Olympics do not apply to
Tibet. Very unusually, however, The Economist gained approval for a
week-long trip, the start of which on March 12th coincided with the
apparent increase in tension.

It seems to have begun on the anniversary itself, when police stopped
an attempt by monks in Lhasa to demonstrate. This much has been
confirmed by a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing, who said monks
from "some temples" had carried out an illegal activity on March 10th
"under the instigation and encouragement of a small group of people."
He said they were "dealt with" according to the law.

About 300 monks seem to have been involved. Reuters news agency,
reporting from Beijing, said that on the next day (March 11th) more
than 600 monks gathered in Lhasa to demand the release of monks
detained for protesting. It said tear-gas was used to disperse them.
These incidents are among the biggest reported in the city in recent
years.

Residents say that more uniformed and plainclothes police have been
deployed around sensitive parts of the city. Policemen patrol the city
centre close to the Jokhang Temple, one of the holiest sites of
Tibetan Buddhism where several protests, often involving just a
handful of people, have occurred over the years. One resident said
some plainclothes police appeared to be disguising themselves as
monks.

Most parts of China are unlikely to see the kind of political unrest
that occurred in the build-up to the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and the
Seoul Olympics in 1988. Tibet is an exception. The government's
attempts to ensure stability by appealing to a sense of national pride
are likely to prove far more difficult in the Himalayan region because
of its ambiguous relationship with China before Communist troops took
control in 1950. The authorities are also worried about the impact of
recent protests in Myanmar led by Buddhist monks.

Many Tibetans outside China hope to use the Olympic games to draw
international attention to what they say are widespread human-rights
abuses in their homeland. On March 13th police in northern India
stopped a (largely symbolic) attempt by more than 100 exiles to march
from the Dalai Lama's exiled home to Tibet to press their case.
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