The Economist magazine’s Beijing correspondent was perhaps the only foreign journalist in the Tibetan capital Lhasa when the riots broke out there. It is a balanced account of what exactly happened there. With the Beijing Olympics beginning in August this year, China tried its best to somehow prevent a bloody show-down with the Tibetan protestors, and the consequent international outrage.
(Meanwhile an Associated Press report says that the Dalai Lama offered Thursday to meet with Chinese leaders including President Hu Jintao, but said he would not travel to Beijing unless there was a ‘real concrete development’ in relations between the government and Tibet.)
The sudden outburst of public anger, and the magnitude of the protest, forced China to use tough measures. The Economist reports:
“Not since the uprising of 1959, during which the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s spiritual leader, fled to India, has there been such widespread unrest across this oxygen-starved expanse of mountains and plateaus. What began, or may have begun (Lhasa feeds on rumour), as the beating of a couple of Buddhist monks by police has turned into a huge political test for the Chinese government.
“Rioting began to spread on the main thoroughfare through Lhasa, Beijing Road (a name that suggests colonial domination to many a Tibetan ear), in the early afternoon of March 14th. It had started a short while earlier outside the Ramoche Temple, in a side street close by, after two monks had been beaten by security officials. (Or so Tibetan residents believe; the official version says it began with monks stoning police.) A crowd of several dozen people rampaged along the road, some of them whooping as they threw stones at shops owned by ethnic Han Chinese—a group to which more than 90% of China’s population belongs—and at passing taxis, most of which in Lhasa are driven by Hans.”
The vandalism increased rapidly and “for hours the security forces did little. But the many Hans who live above their shops in the Tibetan quarter were quick to flee. Had they not, there might have been more casualties. (The government, plausibly, says 13 people were killed by rioters, mostly in fires.) …One Han teenager ran into a monastery for refuge, prostrating himself before a red-robed Tibetan abbot who agreed to give him shelter.
“The destruction was systematic. Shops owned by Tibetans were marked as such with traditional white scarves tied through their shutter-handles. They were spared destruction. Almost every other one was wrecked. It soon became difficult to navigate the alleys because of the scattered merchandise. Han Chinese in Lhasa were baffled and enraged by the slow reaction of the security forces. Thousands of people probably lost most, if not all, of their livelihoods (the majority of Lhasa’s small businesses have no insurance, let alone against rioting).
“But the authorities were clearly hamstrung by the political risks involved. Going in with guns blazing—the tactic used to suppress the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the last serious outbreak of anti-Chinese unrest in Lhasa earlier that year—would risk inciting international calls for a boycott of the Olympic games. Instead they chose to let the rioters vent their anger, then gradually tighten the noose.
“When residents began venturing out more normally on March 17th, the extent of the rioting became clear. Numerous Han Chinese-owned premises well beyond the Tibetan quarter had been attacked. Several buildings had been gutted by fire. The gate of the city’s main mosque was charred, and the windows of the guard-house of the Tibet Daily, the region’s Communist Party mouthpiece, had been smashed.
“The challenge is partly a security one. China will need to move faster to restore a semblance of normality. On June 20th the Olympic flame, having been carried up the Tibetan side of Mount Everest the previous month, is due to arrive in Lhasa, where a big ceremony is planned. Barring journalists and flooding Lhasa’s streets with troops would be embarrassing. More so would be cancelling the event.
“But easing the clampdown would be risky. Many Tibetans see the Olympics as a golden opportunity to bring the world’s attention to their problems under Chinese rule. Tibetans living outside China, particularly in India, have been taking advantage of the Olympics to step up their publicity efforts. This is an annoyance to India, which does not want to disrupt relations with China by appearing to condone efforts to disrupt the games. Indian police have blocked efforts, launched on March 10th by hundreds of dissident Tibetans, to stage a march across the mountains into their homeland.
“With troops on the streets, dialogue looks unlikely in the near future. China has accused the ‘Dalai Lama clique’ of organising the riots. The Dalai Lama has denied involvement and has accused the Chinese of carrying out ‘cultural genocide’ in his homeland. But he also needs to worry about the future of Han Chinese in Tibet. Many Han business people in Lhasa say they are planning to leave. Tourism from the interior, crucial to Lhasa’s economy, is likely to be hard hit too. In the end, China may have a point with its obsession about economics. The recent boom has not won the loyalty or affection of Tibetans, but a slump would make them all the more angry.
The New York Times profiles the two parallel worlds in Tibet that have collided….please click here…