Chengdu (China): Protests against Chinese rule over Tibet grew on Saturday even as Beijing ordered foreign tourists out and locked down Lhasa, the Himalayan region’s political and spiritual capital.
Residents in Lhasa reached by telephone said the city’s streets were quiet after thousands of soldiers were brought in to stop rioting that killed at least 10 people and left buildings smouldering on Friday. Troops were patrolling the city and enforcing a strict curfew.
Monks, considered spiritual and political leaders within Tibetan culture, were confined to their monasteries, witnesses said. One monk at the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s holiest shrine, said gates to the giant structure had been locked and monks had been ordered to remain in their rooms.
Trouble spot: Monks and protesters rally in Amdo Labrang, north-eastern Tibet, on Saturday. Residents of the remote city high in the Himalayas said anti-riot troops controlled the streets and were closely checking Tibetan homes after protests and looting shook the heavily Buddhist region.
But even as Chinese authorities sought to contain the unrest in Lhasa, demonstrations erupted in Tibetan areas where Beijing has less control, sources said. The protests began on the anniversary of a 1959 uprising against Chinese rule of Tibet.
A Tibetan reached by phone and several Tibetans in Chengdu, a large Chinese city at the eastern edge of the Tibetan Plateau, said soldiers had blocked roads to Lhasa to prevent the demonstrations from growing.
“The soldiers are very fierce,” a Tibetan teacher in a town near Lhasa said. “Everyone knows about the protests but we don’t know what we can do.”
All of the Tibetans contacted for this story asked to remain anonymous because they feared persecution for talking with a journalist.
Chinese officials warned “criminals” who had organized or helped plan the demonstrations to come forward or face more severe punishment, according to state media reports.
Beijing has taken the hard line, fearing the protests could snowball across the restive Tibetan majority area, which together makes up roughly one-third of China’s land area.
The timing of the movement seems intentionally to coincide with the run up to this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. China is under close scrutiny of its political actions and missteps could lead to boycotts of the event, considered by Chinese officials as a pivotal milestone in the nation’s rise to world-power status.
Among other things, Beijing is planning to carry the Olympic torch through Lhasa on the way to Mount Everest, probably in April or May.
“If we don’t do this now, we won’t have another chance after the Olympics,” said a Tibetan in Chengdu. “It must be now.”
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency said 10 “innocent civilians” had been shot or burned to death in the street clashes in the remote mountain capital.
If Beijing uses violence to put down demonstrations it risks worldwide condemnation.
Yet because Chinese officials have little moral authority in Tibet, they may believe they have few other options.
On Saturday, Qiangba Puncog, the top government official in Tibet, told reporters in Beijing that Tibetan authorities had not fired bullets to quell the violence in Lhasa.
But reports of shootings have begun to trickle in, though they could not be independently verified.
The Dalai Lama’s exiled government said in a Friday press release quoting “unconfirmed sources” that Chinese armed police had killed “around 100 Tibetans and injured many others for taking part in peaceful demonstrations.”
One Tibetan in Chengdu said a friend who recently left Lhasa said “five or six” Tibetans protesters were shot in central Lhasa on Friday.
Beijing has banned travel to and from Lhasa for most foreigners and calls to government officials in Tibet on Saturday were not answered.
Thubten Samphel, chief spokesman for the exiled Tibetan government of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan leader who fled from Tibet to India in 1959, said that “about 40 people” were arrested on Friday for demonstrating in Shigatse, Tibet’s second largest city.
Protests also grew in majority-Tibetan areas of Sichuan, Qinghai and Gansu provinces on Friday and Saturday. Several monks were arrested on Friday in Kangding, a small city on a road between Chengdu and Lhasa, two monks in Chengdu who had driven through the city said.
In Litang, another city west of Chengdu, five monks were arrested on Saturday after demonstrating openly against Chinese rule, a Tibetan living in Chengdu with relatives in Litang said. Other Tibetans said protests had sprouted in a half-dozen other cities and monks were leaving remote temples to join demonstrations.
Two monks from the Serthar monastery in western Sichuan said some of 8,000 monks at the temple had tried to journey to Lhasa but had been turned back by soldiers.
“Everyone is very angry,” one said. “We want to participate (in the protests).”
Hundreds of Tibetans marched through the town of Xiahe in Gansu province on Friday and Saturday and clashed with security forces, the Associated Press reported.
China invaded Tibet in 1950 and Beijing has occupied the once de facto independent kingdom ever since. But most Tibetans continue to resent Beijing for repressing local culture, particularly by restricting religious life and for enforcing Chinese language instruction at most schools.
Tibetans have waged a number of failed uprisings against Chinese rule. But the current protests are likely to last longer than earlier demonstrations because Tibetans are able to use modern technologies to spread news and plan for collective action.
Many Tibetans can use the Internet and satellite dishes to find news of the protests, stoking unrest.
On Saturday night, a Tibetan watching a pirated feed of CNN at a Chengdu cafe said the current protests are different from earlier ones mostly because “this time we can all see what is happening.”
At a Tibetan restaurant in the city a man from Qinghai province said the recent protests had been coordinated by using cell phones and email messages.
“In 1989 we couldn’t get any news about what was happening, but now it’s easy,” he said.
For its part, Beijing hopes a majority of Tibetans will not join the protests either out of fear or because they see some value in China’s leadership.
Chen Qingying, director of a government-run institute studying Tibetan history, said he thought the protests had peaked on Saturday and would die down.
“Tibet’s economy has improved for the last few decades so a lot of people have too much to lose (by demonstrating),” he said.
A 27-year-old Tibetan woman at the Chengdu restaurant expressed a similar concern.
“China has given us some prosperity,” she said. “If we have freedom, everything will fall apart.” But her husband said he believed the time was right to fight for greater autonomy from Beijing and he would be willing to go to jail in the struggle.
“We are ready to pay the price for freedom,” he said.
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES