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Clash Over Tibet Has County in Lockdown

February 19, 2009

Protests Said to Be Worst Since March

By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009; A10

BEIJING, Feb. 18 -- The county of Lithang in Sichuan province was under
lockdown this week after Tibetan monks, laypeople and nomads clashed
with Chinese security forces Sunday and Monday, according to residents.

Zhou Xiujun, owner of a grocery store, said she witnessed a small
protest near the county's main vegetable market Feb. 15 that escalated
into a much larger one around lunchtime Feb. 16. On the second day, she
said, she saw several hundred Tibetans gathered downtown shouting, "Long
live the Dalai Lama," the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists who
lives in exile in India. In just a few minutes, she said, squads of
police arrived and a melee ensued.

At least one Tibetan protester was swinging a stick, she said, and
others were throwing stones. The policemen subdued them using what she
called "electronic sticks" and tear gas.

The activist group Free Tibet said the protests were the largest across
the Tibetan plateau since violence last spring, which left at least 18
civilians and one police officer dead.

Since last March, Chinese security officials have gone to great lengths
to seal off Tibet. No foreign journalists, except on escorted tours,
have been allowed into the region, and few Tibetans have been allowed to
leave.

Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party secretary for the largest autonomous
Tibetan region in China, is a hard-liner famous for his strike-hard,
no-tolerance approach to quelling unrest. Tibetans say that their
movements are constantly monitored and that even those who are simply
suspected of being disloyal to China have been questioned or detained.

With the approach next month of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan
uprising of 1959 that ended with the flight of the Dalai Lama to India,
the crackdown has become even harsher, residents say. In the capital of
Lhasa, for instance, at least 81 people have been detained over the past
few weeks, Tibetan advocacy groups said.

London-based Free Tibet said that at least 24 Tibetans were detained
after the incidents this week and that two people were carried away by
police. The extent of their injuries was unknown. The Tibetan Center for
Human Rights and Democracy, based in India, said 21 people were
detained. It said two men were badly beaten and suffered severe injuries.

Officials from the county government, police, and the tourism office of
Lithang, which is located in the mountains of the Gardze Tibetan
Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China's Sichuan province,
confirmed an incident had taken place but declined to provide details or
respond to questions.

"I'm afraid of talking about this with you," one Lithang police officer
said by telephone.

"It's a secret. We are not allowed to tell all the truth, information,
and what happened to people outside. This is the policy," the officer said.

Since the riots that began last March, Tibetans have said they have been
living under oppressive conditions, with raids on thousands of homes and
businesses, and people detained for seemingly minor crimes such as
having what authorities call "reactionary" music on their cellphones.
But only a handful of acts of defiance have been confirmed.

On Jan. 27, for instance, five Tibetan monks staged a protest near a
monastery in Dege county in Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in
Sichuan province and called for Tibetan independence, Tibetan advocates
said.

The protests this week were related to plans by Tibetans in exile and in
China to observe a year of mourning and forego Tibetan New Year
celebrations in memory of those who were killed during last year's violence.

The New Year, called Losar, falls on Feb. 26 this year, and celebrations
usually last three to 15 days.

According to Free Tibet, the protests in Lithang began when a
37-year-old resident named Lobsang Lhundup took to the streets, shouting
"No Losar this year" and calling for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

Witnesses said he was quickly joined by a crowd of others who echoed his
chants.

Police detained Lobsang Lhundup and a second round of protests ensued
when authorities refused to release him.

Lithang is a tiny place, said Zhou, the grocery store owner. But now
"more than one thousand armed policemen and public security people
patrol in the street and intersection. I heard more army will be
transferred to Lithang County."

"We are not allowed to go outside; the curfew started from the day
before yesterday," said Anhui, a 19-year-old Tibetan resident.

Zhang Yu, who sells tickets at the bus station, said phone lines were
being monitored.

Ma Long, 35, owner of a Tibetan robe and decoration shop, said all
businesses had been ordered shut: "There are dozens of armed policemen
and public security policemen patrolling in front of my door. Such kinds
of things don't happen often."

Researchers Zhang Jie and Liu Liu contributed to this report.
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