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China still touchy about Tibet security

March 11, 2009

Clampdown on 50th anniversary of rebellion
Peter Goodspeed
The National Post (Canada)
March 9, 2009

Fifty years after an unsuccessful rebellion against Chinese rule in Tibet drove the Dalai Lama into exile, Beijing has imposed a virtual state of martial law, ordering tens of thousands of troops into the country in a bid to quash any public protest.

The pre-emptive clampdown, harsh even by Tibet's standards, has seen nearly all foreigners banned during March.

For weeks now, narrow mountain roads leading to Tibetan-populated regions are reported to have sprouted police checkpoints or are clogged with army transports trucks.

In Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, paramilitary police patrols of up to a dozen men are said to roam the city, guarding the streets night and day, while large squads of troops are deployed around most big monasteries.

Up to 20,000 soldiers from the Chengdu Military Region, one of seven military commands in China, are augmenting the paramilitary Peoples Armed Police. That would make the security crackdown the biggest military deployment in China since last year's earthquake in Sichuan province.

Beijing appears determined to avoid any repetition of the riots that erupted in Tibet last year on the March 10 anniversary of the failed 1959 popular uprising that led to the country's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fleeing to India.

When Chinese police clashed with Buddhist monks outside a monastery in Lhasa, hundreds of angry Tibetans went on a rampage, burning offices and stores and killing at least 18 people, mostly Han Chinese civilians.

They vented their rage against Chinese rule and called for the return of the Dalai Lama.

The Tibetan government in exile claims 220 Tibetans were killed, 1,300 were injured and nearly 7,000 were detained or imprisoned in the Chinese crackdown that followed.

The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet says about 1,200 of those detained are unaccounted for.

China denies the claims, blaming the Dalai Lama for instigating the violence in an effort to smear China's reputation just before the Beijing Olympics.

In November, Chinese courts sentenced 55 people for their involvement in the anti-government riots. Early this year, China's state-controlled media claimed another 81 people were detained and charged with criminal activities in association with the riots.

Little else has changed and Tibet remains one of the most politically sensitive security issues in China. March is a month of crucial anniversaries there.

In 1959, as Chinese troops began to assert control over Tibet, which they first occupied in 1951, thousands of Tibetans rallied to protect the Dalai Lama, when they believed he was about to be abducted by Beijing.

As rebellion flared, the young Tibetan spiritual leader escaped from his Lhasa palace disguised as a soldier and fled across the Himalayas. The 13-day trek ended when the Dalai Lama, ill with dysentery and unable to ride a horse, crossed into India on the back of a dzo, a cross between a yak and a cow.

Within days of his escape, Chinese troops crushed the rebellion, dissolved Tibet's government and declared the creation of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

In a bid to counteract the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama's escape, China has declared a new public holiday on March 28 -- "Serf Emancipation Day" -- to mark China's "liberation" of Tibet.

In the run-up to the anniversary, Chinese media have been full of features portraying "pre-liberation" Tibet as a near-medieval society, riddled with suffering and torture, in which millions were virtual slaves controlled by a few lords and lamas.

A study released this week by China's State Council Information Office claims China has spent billions to develop Tibet's economy and improved residents' human rights and living conditions.

"The so-called 'Tibet issue' is by no means an ethnic, religious and human rights issue, but rather the Western anti-China forces' attempt to restrain, split and demonize China," Xinhua, China's state-owned news agency, quoted the study as saying.

The propaganda campaign has done little to disguise the fact Tibet's political condition remains extremely fragile.
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