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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Iron grip on Tibet ahead of touchy milestones

February 12, 2009

Wed Feb 11, 2009 8:50am IST

By Emma Graham-Harrison

LHASA, China (Reuters) - The security clampdown begins far away from
Tibet, at the airport in China's capital, where passengers flying to
Lhasa are cordoned off for extra checks before they board their plane.

At the other end of the country is a city that seems to be holding its
breath, just weeks ahead of two potentially explosive anniversaries and
a new holiday created by Beijing which pro-Tibet activists warn is
"provocative".

On March 14 last year, Lhasa erupted into riots that spilled over into
ethnically Tibetan areas across the Himalayan plateau. A Tibetan crowd
burned shops belonging to Han Chinese and Hui Muslims, killing 19 people.

The violence caught the government by surprise, but the crackdown was
quick. Officials make no bones about their main objective now.

"The biggest lesson we learnt from the incident last year is that
stability is the overriding priority here in Tibet. It is a big blessing
while chaos is a big disaster," said Tsering, vice-chairman of the
regional government who goes by only one name.

Dressed in a resplendently modern take on traditional Tibetan garb, with
a brown robe draped over a crisply ironed shirt and tie, he blamed the
unrest on Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, but said the
government was now on guard.

"The Tibet issue is not about religion, ethnicity or human rights. We
will continue to stay forceful against the Dalai (Lama)'s plots,"
Tsering told a news conference for visiting foreign journalists on a
rare and tightly controlled government trip to Lhasa.

But the ageing monk is still revered by many of his former subjects. The
50th anniversary of his March 10 flight to India after an abortive
uprising against Chinese rule will be a sensitive marker just before the
anniversary of the riots.

Barely two weeks later, on March 28, the region celebrates "Serf
Liberation Day" for the first time. It commemorates the elimination of
centuries of serfdom after the Dalai Lama's departure -- meaning it may
also be unpopular among those who still support him.

NO MORE RIOTS, NO NEW YEAR

Cao Bianjiang, deputy mayor of the Himalayan city, said fresh unrest
could not be ruled out. But experts outside Tibet say an extensive
crackdown, including arrests and a heavy security presence, make a
repeat of last year's events extremely unlikely, although there may be
isolated protests.

Last year's crackdown triggered anti-Chinese protests which disrupted
the international leg of the torch relay ahead of the Beijing Olympics
in August.

Some monks, one of the most respected and outspoken groups in Tibetan
society, have been receiving training on the "Chinese law and
constitution" said Norgyal, a young disciple at the city's Jokhang temple.

He was part of a group that burst in on visiting journalists last year
to complain about treatment in the wake of the riots but he said he no
longer felt there was cause for complaint.

"The security set-up and the preparedness of the security is on very
high alert, so there is no element of surprise that the protesters could
use," said Tsering Shakya, from the Institute for Asian Research at the
University of British Colombia.

"It is really very very unlikely that there could be any protests like
there were last year."

Locals are quick to confirm the heavy security presence, although as
journalists were driven through town on Tuesday there was a heavy
traffic police presence and officers clustered outside a key temple but
no obviously armed ones.

"It feels very secure, there are military police on almost every street,
with guns and batons," said one long-term Lhasa resident, who barricaded
himself into his office to survive the March riots and had only left the
city to return home for the Chinese New Year in late January.

But officials may face silent protests from unhappy segments of the
population, who are planning to avoid any festivities for the Tibetan
New Year in memory of the dead and arrested.

The plan draws on a tradition for Tibetans in mourning but has angered
the government.

"I heard there are a small number of people saying that they will not
celebrate the New Year ... I think they hope to take that as an
opportunity to make the Tibet issue an international issue, to use it to
achieve their ill-intentioned goals," said Nyima Tsering, deputy head of
the regional parliament.

"The majority of Tibetans will always take this opportunity to celebrate
the harvests and good times they are having and there is no reason for
them not to."
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