China clamps down ahead of key Tibetan anniversary
Monday, March 9, 2009
DAOFU, China -- Military convoys rumble along winding mountain roads, the Internet has been cut in potential trouble spots and motorists must run a gantlet of inspection checkpoints as Beijing mounts a show of force in Tibetan areas to prevent a repeat of uprisings against Chinese rule.
A volatile period begins Tuesday, the 50th anniversary of a failed revolt that sent the Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama, into exile.
A year ago, Tibetans erupted in protest -- sometimes violently. Today, checkpoints and garrisons seem as numerous as the Buddhist monasteries and white-domed shrines that dot the steep slopes and pastures of western China bordering Tibet. The result is a kind of martial law, with constant tension across a third of Beijing's territory.
In Daofu, a town in Sichuan province where Buddhist mantras are carved into the sides of 13,000-foot snow-dusted mountains, the streets where local nuns protested a year ago are calm. Officials say monasteries are closed to visitors, with monks remaining inside studying Buddhist scriptures.
While markets are bustling and many shopkeepers do brisk business, the atmosphere is steeped in watchfulness. Police cars and military trucks patrol dusty streets where prayer flags flutter from homes and Buddhist shrines.
"There have been thousands of police and troops here since the Lhasa riots last year. It has affected our lives," said one resident, who declined to give his name for fear of reprisals by local officials. "Food is more expensive and harder to buy because the soldiers are eating a lot."
Riot in 2008
Authorities have purged monasteries of suspected agitators and enforced denunciation campaigns of the Dalai Lama.
Rumors the spiritual leader would be kidnapped by Chinese authorities touched off the uprising in Lhasa on March 10, 1959, nine years after the communist army marched into the Tibetan regional capital.
Monks in Lhasa tried to stage a commemorative march last year, drawing a blockade by police. That set off protests that erupted in an anti-Chinese riot in Lhasa on March 14. Hundreds of shops were torched and ethnic Chinese attacked in the rioting that spread to dozens of communities before sputtering out last summer.
The Tibetan government-in-exile says 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained in demonstrations in Tibet and in Tibetan communities in three surrounding provinces. Beijing says 22 people died in Lhasa, most of them Chinese civilians. It has acknowledged deaths elsewhere but not provided a tally.
Amnesty International said Friday the region has been subjected to "a year of escalating human rights violations." The International Campaign for Tibet, a Washington-based group, says it has identified more than 600 people detained in the past year, and though some have been released, it says most are still in detention.
China has blamed the Dalai Lama and his exile movement for fomenting the unrest to restore a Buddhist theocracy that communist rule overturned. Despite the Dalai Lama's statements that he wants autonomy for Tibetans -- and not independence -- the government on Saturday renewed its criticisms that he's a secessionist.
"The Dalai is by no means a religious figure but a political figure," Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told reporters in Beijing. "Our differences with him are not over religious issues, human rights, democracy or culture. It is about whether we should defend China's unity and prevent Tibet from being separated from China's territory."
Unifying the 100,000 Tibetans in exile and many of the more than 5 million in China is a shared fear of what the Dalai Lama has called a "cultural genocide" as religious practices are restricted and many ethnic Han Chinese have moved into the region and dominate commerce.
"I feel sad and frustrated over what is happening in Tibet," said B. Tsering, the president of the Tibetan Women's Association in the exile capital in Dharmsala, India. "The very environment in which Tibetan culture, particularly the Tibetan way of life, survives, is being destroyed systematically by the settling people."
What is happening in Tibetan areas has become increasingly difficult to verify. Internet and mobile phone text-messaging services -- some of the ways that protesters organized and kept abreast of developments last year -- have been suspended for the past two weeks or so in Aba and Ganzi, two areas in Sichuan where violent protests broke out last year.
"As far as I know, some of our service has been affected in some parts of Aba and Ganzi due to system maintenance there. We are making all-out efforts to resolve the problem, and I hope it will be done very soon," said Lei Yu, a spokeswoman for China Mobile Ltd., the carrier's listed subsidiary in Hong Kong.
Foreigners have been barred from many Tibetan communities for much of the past year. Associated Press reporters were detained by police twice in recent days.
"This a sensitive period," said Yong Qing, a foreign affairs official in Daofu. She told the AP reporters to turn back because checkpoints and heavy snow made traveling deeper into Tibetan areas impossible. But she added, "Things are stable at the moment. We don't want that upset."
Visitors to Lhasa in recent months have described swarms of armed police positioned across the city, some on rooftops, and blocking roads leading toward Sichuan. To the north in Gansu province, police checkpoints block the roads to Tibetan monasteries.
A Tibetan government official said Sunday that the buildup of troops and police was a temporary measure against possible disturbances by Dalai Lama followers and foreign activists.
"Most parts of Tibet are stable. People are living life as normal," Legqog, who like some Tibetans uses only one name, was quoted as saying by the official Xinhua News Agency at China's annual legislative session.
Small acts of resistance have emerged in the tussle, this time over the traditional Tibetan new year, which started late last month. Tibetans in exile and in China called for a somber observance to honor the dead and jailed while the Chinese government called on communities to celebrate.
On Saturday, the International Campaign for Tibet released photos of an injured monk lying in the street of Aba after he set himself on fire to protest a ban on a key new year prayer festival. Days later, a group of monks from a nearby lamasery took to the streets to demonstrate on the same issue.
Not all agree with the sentiment that drove Tibetans to demonstrate last spring. In Juli monastery south of Daofu, monks stayed away from protests. They were given thousands of dollars by the county and provincial governments for being an "exemplary" monastery. It was the first time that had happened, and no reason was given, monks said.
"During the recent unrest in various places, our monastery was not willing to participate because we believe in 'love the country, love religion,"' said one monk, who was quoting a government line but did not want his name used. "We follow the instructions handed down by the Communist Party. Our teacher tells us every day that it's because of the Communist Party that we can have a new life."