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Six months after riots, tension high as armed police clamp down in Lhasa

October 2, 2008

Residents unwilling to speak out in city hit hard by drop in
tourist numbers

Tania Branigan in Lhasa
The Guardian,
Wednesday October 1 2008

Tibet's capital is under heavy security more than six months after riots
tore through the city, with armed police stationed at every main tourist
spot and patrolling through the heart of Lhasa.

The police chief and one of the region's vice governors were sacked last
week. No reason has been given.

Senior officials say the situation in Tibet is now "stable" and
"normal". Yet the intensive paramilitary police presence suggests they
remain concerned about further outbreaks of violence. Next year is
particularly sensitive as it marks the 50th anniversary of the failed
uprising against Chinese rule that led to the Dalai Lama's flight into
exile.

Chinese authorities say 23 people died in the March 14 violence. Exile
groups, however, claim that hundreds of Tibetans were killed in the
ensuing crackdown in Lhasa and other parts of China. Their allegations
are impossible to verify given constraints on reporting.

The Guardian is the first British newspaper allowed to travel in Tibet
since March. Lhasa's narrow streets now bustle with shoppers, pilgrims
and small groups of foreign tourists. But one resident said the
atmosphere remained tense and religious activity had mostly gone
underground. Paramilitary police armed with guns, batons and riot
shields are stationed throughout the centre.

Officials also said the economy was damaged by the violence, with growth
of 7.4% year-on-year in the first half of the year. The average annual
growth rate was 12.7% over the previous five years.

"The March 14 incident had a very negative impact on economic and social
development," said Hu Xinsheng, a deputy director at Tibet's development
and reform commission.

The effect on the region's tourism industry has been particularly stark,
not least because Tibet was closed to foreign tourists for three months.
"March 14 had a very negative impact on images of Tibet, which had been
of safety and beauty," said Yu Yungui, a deputy director at the tourism
bureau. "You have seen policemen at some scenic spots. That's just a
temporary arrangement."

Last year more than 4 million people visited Tibet, spending almost 5bn
yuan (£406m). This year tourism chiefs were hoping for as many as 5
million, but now only half that number are expected.

The government has vowed to invest even larger sums in the region than
before. But many blame rapid economic development for fuelling this
year's conflict. While living standards have risen overall, many
Tibetans believe the greatest benefits have been reaped by migrants from
China - particularly since the arrival of the railway in 2006. Tibetans
fear the changes are eroding their traditional culture.

Lhasa today is a curious mixture of ethnicities and eras: street vendors
sell chunks of hand-churned yak butter from barrows, while not far away
gleaming storefronts advertise Nike. Tibetan and Chinese can be heard in
the streets.

The authorities reject the idea that social, economic or cultural causes
played any part in March's unrest, although one senior official said
that unemployed urban youths appeared to have been drawn into the riots.

"It was an incident made by a small number of lawless people and
perpetrated and organised by the Dalai clique, which wants to destroy
the national unity of Tibet," said Yu. (The Dalai Lama denies any link
to violence and says he seeks only autonomy for Tibet.)

Free time was included in the Guardian's schedule, which was arranged by
Tibet's foreign affairs office. Few people in the street were willing to
speak to the Guardian, owing to an extensive security apparatus which
includes CCTV and informants.

A Han man asked if the paper disliked Chinese people. But he went on to
say that British people could say what they thought, while it was
dangerous to do so in Lhasa. Asked if that was because of the March
violence, he said: "Even if it snows, you still don't say it's snowing."

A monk in a teahouse appeared keen to speak. Seconds later, his eyes
flicked sideways as a man approached the doorway. "Sorry, I don't
understand," the monk said abruptly.

Exile groups say that "patriotic education" in schools and monasteries -
which requires Tibetans to reaffirm their loyalty to the state and
denounce the Dalai Lama - was one of the reasons behind peaceful
protests which preceded the violence in March. The authorities have
since stepped up those lessons.

"The monks in the monasteries are very happy and grateful with the
government policies and care," said Qiang Qiong Ci Wang at the religious
and ethnic affairs bureau.

Asked what happened to 30 lamas at the Jokhang temple, who made
headlines around the world in March by disrupting an official tour and
telling reporters they had no religious freedom, he said he had not even
heard of the incident. At the time, officials said the monks would not
be punished. No one has been able to speak to them since.

Security in nearby provinces, which also saw Tibetan unrest in March, is
generally lighter than in Tibet. Yet many people in Qinghai remain too
scared to talk. But one lama said grievances over discrimination had
erupted into open clashes, raids on monasteries and mass detentions even
before March.

"We Tibetans don't have freedom - we don't have the right even to
express one word," he said. "That is how it is. Now there is no freedom
at all."
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