Chinese Forces Say They’ve Secured Tibet’s Capital
The NY Times[Saturday, March 15, 2008 23:00]

Chinese forces patrolled the streets of Lhasa on Saturday. (Andy Wong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
Chinese forces patrolled the streets of Lhasa on Saturday. (Andy Wong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images)
BEIJING — Thousands of Buddhist monks and other Tibetans clashed with the riot police in a second Chinese city on Saturday, while the authorities said they had regained control of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, a day after a rampaging mob ransacked shops and set fire to cars and storefronts in a deadly riot.

Conflicting reports emerged about the violence in Lhasa on Friday. The Chinese authorities denied that they had fired on protesters there, but Tibetan leaders in India told news agencies on Saturday that they had confirmed that 30 Tibetans had died and that they had unconfirmed reports that put the number at more than 100.

Demonstrations erupted for the second consecutive day in the city of Xiahe in Gansu Province, where an estimated 4,000 Tibetans gathered near the Labrang Monastery. Local monks had held a smaller protest on Friday, but the confrontation escalated Saturday afternoon, according to witnesses and Tibetans in India who spoke with protesters by telephone.

Residents in Xiahe, reached by telephone, heard loud noises similar to gunshots or explosions. A waitress described the scene as “chaos” and said many injured people had been sent to a local hospital. Large numbers of military police and security officers fired tear gas while Tibetans hurled rocks, according to the Tibetans in India.

“Their slogans were, ‘The Dalai Lama must return to Tibet’ and ‘Tibetans need to have human rights in Tibet,’ ” said Jamyang, a Tibetan in Dharamsala, India, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile, who spoke to protesters.

The violence in Lhasa and Xiahe has created a major political and public relations challenge for the ruling Communist Party as Beijing prepares to play host to the Olympic Games in August. The demonstrations are the largest in Tibet since 1989, when Chinese troops used lethal force to crush an uprising by thousands of Tibetan protesters.

China’s response to this week’s demonstrations is being watched carefully by the outside world. The European Union and the United States have both called on China to act with restraint. The White House called on China to “respect Tibetan culture” and issued a renewed call for dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

The tumult also undercuts a theme regularly promoted by China’s propaganda officials — that Tibetans are a happy minority group, smoothly integrated into the country’s broader ethnic fabric.

“What we see right now, what is happening in Tibet, blows the whole propaganda strategy in Tibet wide open,” said Lhadon Tethong, an official with the advocacy group Students for a Free Tibet.

On Saturday the Chinese authorities defended their response to the violence in Lhasa. “We fired no gunshots,” said Qiangba Puncog, chairman of the Tibet Autonomous Regional Government, according to state media.

But Tibetan advocacy groups and witnesses in Lhasa offered contradictory accounts. The Tibetan government in exile said at least 30 Tibetans died in the protests, according to Agence France-Presse. Witnesses told Radio Free Asia, the nonprofit news agency financed by the United States government, that numerous Tibetans were dead. A 13-year-old Tibetan boy, reached by telephone, said he watched the violence from his apartment and saw four or five Tibetans fall to the ground after military police officers fired upon them.

Foreign journalists are being restricted from traveling to Lhasa, and the precise death toll remains unknown. State media reported 10 deaths and characterized most of them as shopkeepers. The government’s official news agency, Xinhua, reported that the victims had been “burned to death.”

The demonstrations in Lhasa began Monday and continued through Wednesday as peaceful protests by Buddhist monks from three different monasteries. Some monks protested against religious restrictions while others demanded an end to Chinese rule and even waved the Tibetan flag. The police arrested scores of monks and then reportedly tightened security around the three monasteries so that monks could not leave.

Initially, the protests were largely ignored in the Chinese media, which was providing blanket coverage of the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress, the Communist Party-controlled national legislature. When reports of violent riots began trickling out of Lhasa on Friday afternoon, the Chinese media was silent.

But with growing international concern about the protests, and reports that Chinese security forces had attacked monks, the Xinhua news agency issued a short statement blaming rioters for the violence. By Saturday morning, China’s state television network, CCTV, was broadcasting video of Tibetans burning buildings as anchors read directly from a Xinhua report that blamed the Dalai Lama for the violence.

Chinese officials demanded the surrender of the “lawbreakers” in Lhasa and offered leniency to people who turned themselves into the authorities by midnight Monday. Senior officials described the unrest as “sabotage” orchestrated by the Dalai Lama and credited the military police for rescuing 580 people from banks, schools and hospitals that were set afire by rioters.

Gen. Yang Deqing of the People’s Liberation Army said Chinese soldiers would not be deployed and the protests were being handled by local police officers and the country’s paramilitary force, the People’s Armed Police.

“We’ll let the police and the military police handle the disturbance,” General Yang said at the National People’s Congress, where he was a delegate. “We won’t be involved.”

Witnesses in Lhasa on Saturday reported seeing large numbers of military police, armored vehicles and, according to a few reports, tanks.

Several residents, reached by telephone, said that an uneasy calm had settled over the city. Tibetans living in the suburbs said officers were blocking people from entering the city center. Local television broadcast instructions. Power and telephone service, suspended in some neighborhoods on Friday, were being restored on Saturday. Traffic was light on city streets, while most shops were closed.

“It is all under control now,” said one resident, who identified himself as Mr. Liu and who lives near the old part of the city where the violence started. “We were notified to stay at home last night.”

It is still uncertain what set off Friday’s unrest. Tibetan advocates say ordinary Tibetans began rioting after military police officers attacked monks trying to protest outside a monastery in the center of the city.

The extent of the violence was evident in photographs and video shown on the Internet: fires raging from rooftops and from charred vehicles, shattered storefronts and huge crowds trolling city streets.

News agencies reported that foreign tourists are now being prohibited from entering Tibet. The United States Embassy in Beijing issued a new warning on Saturday advising American citizens about danger in Lhasa and other regions.

Huang Yuanxi and Zhang Jing contributed research from Beijing.