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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Through the eyes of witnesses

July 30, 2010

J.M.
The Economist (UK)
July 28th 2010

BEIJING -- YOUR correspondent was on leave on
July 22nd, when Human Rights Watch released its
report on the abuses that Chinese security forces
are alleged to have committed in Tibet since the
massive eruption of anti-Chinese unrest there in
2008. The 73-page document describes itself as
the first comprehensive examination of the
ongoing crackdown. Based largely on interviews
with 200-odd Tibetans who left the region as
refugees or on visits, it is a valuable
contribution to an under-reported story.

China is adept at ensuring that little news of
such repression gets out. In the far western
province of Xinjiang, where the authorities have
been cracking down since an outbreak of ethnic
violence in July last year, the tactic has been
to sever communications links with the outside
world by mobile telephone or the internet (though
restrictions have been relaxed since May). On the
Tibetan plateau, the authorities in some places
confiscated mobile phones and computers from
monks and made it all the more difficult for
foreign journalists—who are rarely welcome at the
best of times—to visit. By chance I was the only
foreign reporter on the spot when rioting erupted
in Lhasa on March 14th 2008. I was not allowed
back again until nearly two years later and then
only for a frustratingly brief tour.

Human Rights Watch documents killings, torture,
show trials, beatings and arrests galore. Much to
its credit, it does not attempt to weave in
reports that come via long-term Tibetan exiles,
many of which are difficult to verify. The
Tibetan government-in-exile has reported more
than 200 Tibetans killed by the security forces
since March 2008, including at least 80 who died
on March 14th that year. In support of this
figure it has cited the alleged spotting of some
80 bodies piled near a Lhasa police station on the following day.

The report from Human Rights Watch appears to be
more cautious. Many Tibetans may well have been
killed by police gunfire across the Tibetan
plateau, but the report sticks mainly to accounts
that it says have been corroborated by multiple
sources. In the case of Lhasa, it acknowledges
“persistent rumours” that security forces
systematically removed Tibetan fatalities in
order to conceal their use of lethal force on
March 14th and 15th.  The report also quotes
several witnesses who describe having seen
civilians shot dead during the unrest in Lhasa.
Some of them saw an incident in the southern part
of the Tibetan quarter on March 14th in which
several people were reported to have been killed.

These accounts shed useful light on what is still
a murky picture of what happened in Lhasa on
those two days. Though I had been able to move
about the city with little restriction at the
time I did not at any point see troops fire
directly on anybody. I did not even did he hear
the sound of gunfire until the 15th. But the area
affected was so large that brief, scattered
shootings could well have occurred around the
city without my being aware. (Human Rights Watch
notes that China has not yet addressed why its
security forces abandoned Lhasa’s city centre to
protesters and looters for several hours on March
14th.) Oddly perhaps—given that many residents
have camera-enabled mobile phones, access to the
internet was not specially restricted and a mood
of anarchy prevailed in the Tibetan quarter—no
photographs hinting at security forces' use of lethal force have emerged.

But although the Lhasa rioting was huge in scale
and in the extent of its political impact, it was
only one of dozens of flare-ups across the
Tibetan plateau. The Human Rights Watch report
provides record of shootings and other brutality
by the security forces that happened in areas
where correspondents have had even greater
difficulty gaining access, especially in Tibetan
areas of Sichuan Province. There is no doubt that
the authorities have used fear to cast a pall of
silence over a vast territory. Many Tibetans were
jailed in connection with the unrest; Human
Rights Watch says that seven were sentenced in
October and November 2008 for reporting
information about the situation in Lhasa to the
outside world. Their terms ranged from eight
years to life. No wonder so little is known.
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