Stories like this from today’s New York Times make me cry. But how can a movement of a few million surviving Tibetans face down the giant that is Communist China?
BEIJING — Violent protests erupted Friday in a busy market area of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as Buddhist monks and other ethnic Tibetans clashed with Chinese security forces. Witnesses say the protesters burned shops, cars, military vehicles and at least one tourist bus.
The chaotic scene marked the most violent demonstrations since protests by Buddhist monks began in Lhasa on Monday, the anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule in 1959. By Friday night, Chinese authorities had placed much of the central part of the city under a curfew, including neighborhoods around different Buddhist monasteries, according to two Lhasa residents reached by telephone. Military police were blocking roads in some ethnic Tibetan neighborhoods, several Lhasa residents said.
Meanwhile, the United States Embassy in Beijing warned American citizens to stay away from Lhasa. The embassy said it had “received firsthand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence.”
The Chinese government’s official news agency, Xinhua, issued a two-sentence bulletin, in English, confirming that shops in Lhasa had been set on fire and that other stores had closed because of violence on the streets. But the protests were otherwise censored in the Chinese press.
The protests, the largest in Lhasa in nearly two decades, appear to be becoming a major problem for the ruling Communist Party, which is holding its annual meeting of the National People’s Congress this week in Beijing. China is eager to present a harmonious image to the rest of the world as Beijing prepares to play host to the Olympic Games in August.
Information emerging about Friday’s protests was scattered and difficult to verify. But witnesses in Lhasa say the violence erupted on Friday morning at the Tromsikhang Market, a massive, concrete structure built in the old Tibetan section of the city by Chinese authorities in the early 1990s. “It’s chaos in the streets,” said a person who answered the telephone at a bread shop near the market.
A local travel agent, reached by telephone, said a riot broke out at the market and around the nearby Ramoche Temple because of friction between Tibetan and Han Chinese traders. The agent said fires erupted near the Ramoche Temple and elsewhere in the market area, while Tibetan traders also overturned a tour bus and set it ablaze.
“There was a fight between the bus owner and the Tibetans who set the fire,” said the agent, who is Han Chinese. “But not serious. Only several people got hurt.”
The demonstrations apparently expanded as protesters set fire to other shops. News agencies reported that monks from the Ramoche Temple went into the streets and clashed with police officers. “The monks are still protesting,” one witness told the Associated Press. “Police and army cars were burned. There are people crying. Hundreds of people, including monks and civilians are in the protests.”
Meanwhile, anxious tourists stranded in Lhasa posted worried comments on online forums for travelers. “The situation seems to be very nervous and paranoid up here,” wrote one person in broken grammar and spelling on a Lonely Planet guide chat room. “There is police and military everwhere. Suddenly you would see some policeman running and rushig somewhere…”
Another Lhasa resident reached by telephone described Friday’s protests as the most violent of the week. “There have been several riots in recent days,” said Ms. Liu, the resident, who would only give her surname. She said friends who witnessed the riots described them to her. “Today’s riot is more serious. I have a full-time job in a state-owned company, and we got notice from our superiors not to go watch the riots.”
Beijing has kept a tight lid on dissent in the months before the Olympic Games. But people with grievances against the governing Communist Party have tried to promote their causes at a time when, with international attention focused on China, top officials may be wary of cracking down using force.
Tibet was taken militarily by China in 1951 and has remained contentious, particularly because of the bitter relations between the Communist Party and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.
Sporadic talks between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives have produced no results, and Beijing continues to condemn him as a “splitist” determined to severe the region’s ties to China. In the past, the Dalai Lama has said that he accepts Chinese rule but that Tibetans need greater autonomy to practice their religion.
Accounts from Tibetan advocacy groups, from the United States-financed Radio Free Asia and from tourists’ postings on the Internet suggest that protests emerged from three of the most famous monasteries in Tibetan Buddhism.
Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University who has communicated with Tibetan exiles, said the initial incident occurred Monday afternoon when about 400 monks left Drepung Loseling Monastery intending to march five miles west to the city center. Police officers stopped the march at the halfway point and arrested 50 or 60 monks.
But Mr. Barnett said the remaining monks held the equivalent of a sit-down strike and were joined by an additional 100 monks from Drepung. The monks “were demanding specific changes on religious restrictions in the monastery,” said Mr. Barnett. He said monks want the authorities to ease rules on “patriotic education” in which monks are required to study government propaganda and write denunciations of the Dalai Lama.
On Tuesday morning, the Drepung monks apparently agreed to return to the monastery.
But another protest was under way in the heart of the city, outside the Jokhang Temple, the most sacred temple in Tibet. About a dozen monks from the Sera Monastery staged a pro-independence protest, waving a Tibetan flag in front of onlookers in the crowded square outside the temple. Police officers arrested the monks. Foreign tourists posted video on the Internet of officers shooing away people.
The arrests sparked another protest on Tuesday. Witnesses told Radio Free Asia that 500 or 600 monks poured out of the Sera Monastery, about two miles north of the Jokhang Temple. They shouted slogans and demanded the release of their fellow monks.
“Free our people, or we won’t go back!” the monks chanted, Radio Free Asia reported. “We want an independent Tibet!”
Witnesses said that police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd.
A protest was reported Wednesday at Ganden Monastery, about 35 miles east of Lhasa.
Radio Free Asia reported Thursday that two monks at Drepung had attempted suicide.
Mr. Barnett said the protests were the largest in Lhasa since 1989, when protests by monks from the Drepung and Sera monasteries led to a bloody clash with Chinese security forces and the imposition of martial law.
Huang Yuanxi, Zhang Jing and Jake Hooker contributed research from Beijing. Photo by Agence France-Presse — Getty Images