China's show of force keeps Tibet quiet

March 10, 2009 11:43:08 AM PDT
Swarms of police and stepped-up security checks in Tibet and other parts of western China apparently stifled any large-scale protests to mark Tuesday's 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan revolt against Chinese rule. In the Tibetan capital of Lhasa - where the abortive uprising began in 1959 and violent protests recurred last year - riot and paramilitary police patrolled the streets with automatic rifles. Residents said police were stationed throughout the city. Tibetans in other communities said police checked hotel registrations and asked Tibetans to show their identity cards.

"Even though it seems relatively quiet, we can feel that the security is very tight now," said an employee at the Shannan Yulong Holiday Hotel in Tsedang, Tibet's third-largest city. The employee, who declined to give a name for fear of government reprisal, said police checked the hotel's registration records every day.

China's authoritarian government has sought in recent weeks to head off trouble ahead of the anniversary, increasing an already heavy paramilitary presence, locking down its Tibetan areas, and barring foreigners to keep information from seeping out of the region.

The Dalai Lama, the revered leader of Tibetan Buddhists who fled to exile as the 1959 uprising collapsed, said the current crackdown added to decades of repression and misery for Tibetans, turning their homeland into "hell on earth."

"Even today, Tibetans in Tibet live in constant fear, and the Chinese authorities remain constantly suspicious of them," the Dalai Lama said in an anniversary speech from the headquarters of his government-in-exile across the Himalayas in Dharmsala, India.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu called the Dalai Lama's remarks "lies" and accused him of spreading rumors.

Lhasa residents received notice on their cell phones Tuesday from carrier China Mobile that voice and text messaging services may face disruptions from March 10 to May 1 for "network improvements." Similar measures were recently taken in other Tibetan communities as the government sought to unplug communications that activists used to spread word of the protests last year.

As part of the heightened security, overseas Tibet support groups reported that police arrested at least four monks last week in the heavily Tibetan town of Aba, where security forces opened fire on demonstrators last year. The London-based Free Tibet Campaign said the detained monks were held on suspicion of distributing flyers that said others would to set themselves on fire to commemorate the uprising.

Last year, an attempt by monks in Lhasa to stage a peaceful march drew swift reprisal from police. It then set off more protests that tapped into Tibetan fears that their identity, deeply rooted in their religion, is being undermined by Chinese rule, its religious restrictions and the influx of large numbers of Chinese migrants.

Ethnic rioting erupted in Lhasa on March 14 and anti-government protests spread to Tibetan communities in surrounding provinces across a quarter of China's territory - the most widespread, sustained revolt in Tibet since 1959.

Beijing has yet to give a full accounting for deaths and arrests. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a report released Monday that the official figures on arrests and convictions suggest that several hundred remain in custody.

Even as Tuesday's anniversary passed, ramped-up security is to remain in place for several more weeks to make sure that other important dates passed uneventfully, likely aggravating resentment among Tibetans. In Kangding, a mixed Chinese-Tibetan city that's an eastern gateway to the Tibetan highlands, Communist Party secretary Xiang Luo reviewed paramilitary police late Monday and told them to be extra vigilant around four "very sensitive dates" in March.

He cited March 10, the date in 1959 on the start of the uprising; March 14, which marks last year's riot; March 18, the date in 1959 when the Dalai Lama fled; and March 28, the date in 1959 when China declared victory and placed Tibet under Beijing's direct rule for the first time. "You must accomplish your job for those dates. They are very important," Xiang said.

With troops in large numbers placed around communities and the many monasteries whose monks were at the forefront of the rebellions, Tibetans were likely to bide their time until the security waned.

"They generally wait when things are tough on an anniversary. They tend, in the past, to do very little on that day and wait until the guard is down and the troops are back in the barracks, and then do very small things repeatedly over a long time," said Robert Barnett, a Tibetan affairs expert at Columbia University. "The Tibetans are there for the duration until the situation gets better."

Officials have said that Tibetans from other areas were key instigators in last year's Lhasa riots. In Aba, in the mountains of Sichuan province, shops and restaurants were ordered closed at 7 p.m., said Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign.

At the Changdu Hotel in the eastern Tibetan city of Changdu, a clerk said police were enforcing strict ID checks - but only for Tibetans. "Any Tibetan from Qinghai or Ganzi or other areas who wants to stay must show their ID cards, but this rule doesn't apply to ethnic Chinese," said the clerk.

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Associated Press writers Chi-Chi Zhang in Beijing and Gavin Rabinowitz in Dharmsala, India, contributed to this story.

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