Event ReportsPublished on Mar 30, 2009
The current phase of disturbances in Tibet began when five monks in the monastery town of Derge in Gansu province on 27 January demanding the independence of Tibet and return of the Dalai Lama demonstrated outside the monastery attracting crowds of villagers
Unrest in Tibet and the Chinese response

Every year around this time as the Tibetan National Day of March 10 approaches, the Chinese government gets nervous and edgy. The rest of the year they remain in denial with the Dalai Lama described as a splittist and the bland assertion that Tibet is peaceful.

The current phase of disturbances in Tibet began when five monks in the monastery town of Derge in Gansu province on 27 January demanding the independence of Tibet and return of the Dalai Lama demonstrated outside the monastery attracting crowds of villagers.  The local authorities, nervous about any sign of protest in Tibet, had the police firing into the gathering and clashes broke out. The restive Lithang County in the Tibet Autonomous Region was the next to witness rioting. Disturbances have erupted again on the eve of the Tibetan New Year festival of Losar on 25 February and have now spread throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan-dominated areas of other provinces in China. A Tibetan monk set himself on fire in Sichuan province in south-west China on February 27. Sichuan was one of the three provinces which had witnessed riots last March.

Lithang had witnessed ugly and protracted rioting last March and this year the protests in had been again sparked by a monk. The 39-year old Lobsang Lhundhup had called on the people not to celebrate Losar in protest against the actions of the authorities.  Protests spread rapidly across the county and continued at least till 19 February. On 19 Feb, the day before US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s arrival in Beijing, clashes erupted again, this time in Nagchu County and conditions remained disturbed for at least a few days.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan Uprising and the Tibetan Festival of Losar and therefore the authorities had presumably anticipated that there would be agitations. Chinese security authorities had initiated precautionary measures and deployed additional Chinese Army and Peoples Armed Police personnel in places assessed to be sensitive in the Tibet Autonomous Region and adjoining Tibetan populated areas. Taking no chances the authorities had begun preparations for a crackdown soon after the conclusion of the Olympics.

They had then commenced quietly tackling the recalcitrant and separatist elements in the troublesome minority-peopled Xinjiang and Tibet Autonomous Regions. A ‘strike hard’ campaign was launched in phases in each of the provinces a month after the conclusion of the games. This campaign gained in intensity and a couple of months ago the Chinese public security authorities began identifying and apprehending a number of separatist and pro-independence elements. By the end of January 2009 over 5,500 individuals had been detained throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region. The authorities continued to tighten their grip over the Tibet Autonomous Region and Tibetan areas elsewhere.

Indicators of the tough line that the authorities planned to follow were clearly publicized and Tibetan officials inside China and abroad were privy to it. A harshly worded editorial in the official ‘Tibet Daily’ on 18 February called for a tough stance by the authorities. The same day the Tibet Branch of the State Buddhist Association effected a revision of its charter and ordered all monks and nuns to reject the Dalai Lama. The tough, revised charter described the Dalai Lama as “a loyal tool of anti-China Western forces, the root cause of unrest in Tibet and biggest obstacle to building Tibetan Buddhism”. Barely a couple of days later a conference of Tibetan leaders which convened in Lhasa signaled that it would adopt an uncompromising attitude towards demonstrators. The conference ordered the authorities to ‘mobilise and fully deploy to quell disturbances’. Lobsang Gyancain, member of the TAR Party Committee Standing Committee, warned the clergy, who have been in the forefront of such agitations in past years, against taking part in the demonstrations and monks in many of the monasteries were dispersed. The visibility of Army and police personnel in important towns has noticeably increased and additional troop deployments have been noticed in Lhasa, Xiahe in Gansu Province and Tongren, a monastery town in Qinghai Province.

The Dalai Lama, in his message to the Tibetan people on the occasion of Losar, expressed anguish at the sacrifices made by the Tibetans especially inside Tibet and the ongoing repression by the Chinese authorities. Urging Tibetans to show solidarity with those imprisoned and those who continue to make sacrifices he exhorted them not to celebrate Losar. He said he anticipated some more trouble during this month. The Dalai Lama’s message gives some encouragement to protestors inside Tibet.

Interestingly, foreign media criticism of the tough action by the Chinese authorities has thus far been somewhat muted. Foreign leaders, normally quick to express support for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan cause have so far not been vocal. Though at least four  towns in central Bohemia in the Czech Republic have resolved to display the Tibetan flag between 25 Feb and 2 March to commemorate the anniversary, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on her first abroad after assuming office, chose to downplay the issues of Tibet and Human Rights in discussions with Chinese leaders in Beijing to the dismay of Human Rights and Tibetan activists and organisations.

This low-key approach is undoubtedly prompted by US preoccupation with the economic crisis and sensitivity in the US Administration to the important role that China can play. A lowering of the Tibet issue by Britain in its international agenda had earlier been announced by Foreign Secretary Milliband with his remarks on ‘suzerainty’ and ‘sovereignty’ and the status of Tibet. These factors would have been incorporated in the tough Chinese response to the disturbances in Tibet and Beijing’s attitude towards the Dalai Lama.

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