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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?"

Tensions high as China braces for Tibet protests

March 11, 2009

Karl Malakunas
March 8, 2009

Beijing is desperate to prevent protests by monks and nomads after violent unrest last year embarrassed the leadership just ahead of the Olympics in the Chinese capital.

The Dalai Lama has called on his Buddhist followers to remain true to his non-violent cause, while also warning that worsening Chinese repression could provoke further confrontations.

"The situation in Tibet is very tense and discontentment over Chinese rule is simmering," said Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan exile and historian now working as a researcher with the University of British Columbia in Canada.

Tuesday marks half a century since Tibetans rose up against Chinese rule, a brutal period when exiles say more than 80,000 people were killed in China's military response.

Last year's anniversary saw unrest that not only angered Chinese leaders, who were building up to the August Olympics, but also made Tibet a top agenda item for world leaders dealing with Beijing.

Tibetan exiles say more than 200 people died when Chinese security forces clamped down, although China denies this and says "rioters" were responsible for 21 deaths.

The Beijing government has sent in extra forces in a bid to quell support for the Dalai Lama and ensure no repeat of last year's violence in Tibet and neighbouring areas of western China with Tibetan populations.

Those areas cover roughly one quarter of China's landmass and have just six million Tibetans, many of whom remain nomads.

Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi on Saturday accused the Dalai Lama of seeking to carve out a "Greater Tibet" in those areas and warned other countries that friendly relations with Beijing hinged on refusing visits by the monk.

Tibet's top official, Qiangba Puncog, conceded the anniversary period was always a sensitive time but expressed confidence that there would be no major protests.

"There shouldn't be big problems in Tibet," he told reporters last week in Beijing.

While Chinese officials publicly insist this is mainly because Tibetans are happy under China's leadership, exiles and activist groups counter that it is because of extreme measures taken to silence dissent.

"Tibetans are living under de-facto martial law, all their most basic and cherished freedoms are denied," said Matt Whitticase of the London-based Free Tibet campaign.

Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for US-based International Campaign for Tibet, said China's response to last year's unrest had been to intensify the hardline policies seen throughout its 58-year rule of Tibet.

It is extremely difficult to assess the situation on the ground as foreign tourists have been banned from Tibet during March, according to travel agents and hotels there, although the government denies any such restrictions.

International media are also barred from visiting Tibet independently.

Foreign journalists who have sought to report from the other trouble spots of western China recently have faced police harassment, and have been blocked from many areas and in some cases detained.

Residents contacted by AFP in some of the most sensitive towns say they are too fearful of repercussions from local authorities to speak to foreigners.

Nevertheless, reports of protests have filtered out.

One monk in the flashpoint region of Aba, in southwestern China's Sichuan province, set himself alight in a protest over Chinese rule, with state media confirming the incident after activist groups first reported it.

China, in contrast, insists its rule of Tibet, which started in 1951 after troops were sent in to "liberate" the region from serfdom, has brought nothing but benefits for its roughly three million people.

Chinese authorities plan to hold the first annual "Serfs Emancipation Day" on March 28 to celebrate bringing "democratic reform" to Tibet.

"Over the past 50 years... Tibet has experienced a process from darkness to brightness, from poverty to prosperity," the government asserted in a document last week outlining its version of events.
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