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Six months after riots, tension high as armed police clamp down in Lhasa
The Guardian, UK[Thursday, October 02, 2008 23:23]
Residents unwilling to speak out in city hit hard by drop in tourist numbers

By Tania Branigan in Lhasa

Tibet's capital is under heavy security more than six months after riots tore through the city, with armed police stationed at every main tourist spot and patrolling through the heart of Lhasa.

The police chief and one of the region's vice governors were sacked last week. No reason has been given.

Senior officials say the situation in Tibet is now "stable" and "normal". Yet the intensive paramilitary police presence suggests they remain concerned about further outbreaks of violence. Next year is particularly sensitive as it marks the 50th anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule that led to the Dalai Lama's flight into exile.

Chinese authorities say 23 people died in the March 14 violence. Exile groups, however, claim that hundreds of Tibetans were killed in the ensuing crackdown in Lhasa and other parts of China. Their allegations are impossible to verify given constraints on reporting.

The Guardian is the first British newspaper allowed to travel in Tibet since March. Lhasa's narrow streets now bustle with shoppers, pilgrims and small groups of foreign tourists. But one resident said the atmosphere remained tense and religious activity had mostly gone underground. Paramilitary police armed with guns, batons and riot shields are stationed throughout the centre.

Officials also said the economy was damaged by the violence, with growth of 7.4% year-on-year in the first half of the year. The average annual growth rate was 12.7% over the previous five years.

"The March 14 incident had a very negative impact on economic and social development," said Hu Xinsheng, a deputy director at Tibet's development and reform commission.

The effect on the region's tourism industry has been particularly stark, not least because Tibet was closed to foreign tourists for three months. "March 14 had a very negative impact on images of Tibet, which had been of safety and beauty," said Yu Yungui, a deputy director at the tourism bureau. "You have seen policemen at some scenic spots. That's just a temporary arrangement."

Last year more than 4 million people visited Tibet, spending almost 5bn yuan (£406m). This year tourism chiefs were hoping for as many as 5 million, but now only half that number are expected.

The government has vowed to invest even larger sums in the region than before. But many blame rapid economic development for fuelling this year's conflict. While living standards have risen overall, many Tibetans believe the greatest benefits have been reaped by migrants from China - particularly since the arrival of the railway in 2006. Tibetans fear the changes are eroding their traditional culture.

Lhasa today is a curious mixture of ethnicities and eras: street vendors sell chunks of hand-churned yak butter from barrows, while not far away gleaming storefronts advertise Nike. Tibetan and Chinese can be heard in the streets.

The authorities reject the idea that social, economic or cultural causes played any part in March's unrest, although one senior official said that unemployed urban youths appeared to have been drawn into the riots.

"It was an incident made by a small number of lawless people and perpetrated and organised by the Dalai clique, which wants to destroy the national unity of Tibet," said Yu. (The Dalai Lama denies any link to violence and says he seeks only autonomy for Tibet.)

Free time was included in the Guardian's schedule, which was arranged by Tibet's foreign affairs office. Few people in the street were willing to speak to the Guardian, owing to an extensive security apparatus which includes CCTV and informants.

A Han man asked if the paper disliked Chinese people. But he went on to say that British people could say what they thought, while it was dangerous to do so in Lhasa. Asked if that was because of the March violence, he said: "Even if it snows, you still don't say it's snowing."

A monk in a teahouse appeared keen to speak. Seconds later, his eyes flicked sideways as a man approached the doorway. "Sorry, I don't understand," the monk said abruptly.

Exile groups say that "patriotic education" in schools and monasteries - which requires Tibetans to reaffirm their loyalty to the state and denounce the Dalai Lama - was one of the reasons behind peaceful protests which preceded the violence in March. The authorities have since stepped up those lessons.

"The monks in the monasteries are very happy and grateful with the government policies and care," said Qiang Qiong Ci Wang at the religious and ethnic affairs bureau.

Asked what happened to 30 lamas at the Jokhang temple, who made headlines around the world in March by disrupting an official tour and telling reporters they had no religious freedom, he said he had not even heard of the incident. At the time, officials said the monks would not be punished. No one has been able to speak to them since.

Security in nearby provinces, which also saw Tibetan unrest in March, is generally lighter than in Tibet. Yet many people in Qinghai remain too scared to talk. But one lama said grievances over discrimination had erupted into open clashes, raids on monasteries and mass detentions even before March.

"We Tibetans don't have freedom - we don't have the right even to express one word," he said. "That is how it is. Now there is no freedom at all."
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