A Tibetan Intifadeh Against China

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Tibetan marchers in Dehra, India are arrested by Indian police on March 13

Caption clarified July 8, 2008

Fresh protests broke out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa on Friday, with indications that what had until now been peaceful demonstrations have turned violent. Varying numbers of casualties have been reported among clashes that residents, academics and activists say have erupted between Tibetans and Chinese security forces, with accounts of gunfire, police cars burning, and bodies in the streets. Whatever the outcome, though, it seemed to be a turning point in the history of Tibet and perhaps also China. "This is massive," said one Tibet specialist who was in touch with many Lhasa residents, "it is the intifadeh. And it will be a long, long time before this ends, whatever happens today or tomorrow."

While the scale of the protests and the temper of the reaction by Chinese authorities remain to be seen, the outbreak of violence was an ominous sign for Tibet, where resentment against Chinese rule has been simmering for years. An already tense situation has been exacerbated by China's sensitivity about its human rights image ahead of the staging of the Olympic Games in Beijing in August. Some observers argue that what appeared to be carefully planned and executed protests — the first on such a scale in nearly two decades — were likely deliberately timed to take advantage of the media attention focused on the upcoming Games.

The demonstrations began on March 9 when hundreds of monks from three large monasteries on the outskirts of the city, Drepung, Sera and Ganden, attempted to enter Lhasa to commemorate an uprising against Chinese rule in 1959 that was ruthlessly suppressed with hundreds of protesters reportedly killed. The Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to flee Lhasa for refuge in India, where he has lived in exile ever since. (Chinese troops occupied Tibet in 1949 when the Communists finally claimed victory in the country's prolonged civil war).

The anniversary protests had passed peacefully — until now. "The Chinese response had been extraordinarily restrained, which is amazing," says Robert Barnett, professor of Contemporary Tibetan Studies at Columbia University. Barnett and others say that paramilitary police blocked at least three attempts by monks from each of the three monasteries to enter the capital. Later the monasteries were surrounded by armed police. Some monks responded in one monastery by reportedly going on hunger strike while there were reports of attempted suicides at another.

That pattern of protest was a repeat of the last time Lhasa saw large-scale anti-Beijing demonstrations in March 1989, an escalating series of clashes that ended with troops killing scores of protesters and the declaration of martial law.

The Chinese administration of Tibet in the last two years or so has been particularly harsh and provocative, says Barnett, who attributes the tone to the Communist Party Secretary for Tibet, Zhang Qingli. "He is the Rottweiler of the Chinese establishment and has been extremely provocative. He even said once that the Communist Party was Buddha, not the Dalai Lama."

Other observers pointed to the opening of a new train line linking Beijing with Lhasa in July 2006 as a turning point. Whereas previously the only access to Lhasa had been through a bone-shaking, two day bus ride or an exorbitant plane ride, the cheaply priced train has doubled the number of tourists entering Tibet and made access much easier for tens of thousands of Chinese seeking to cash in on a local economy juiced by billions of dollars of investment from Beijing. Chinese already outnumber ethnic Tibetans in Lhasa, and many Tibetans felt that they might end up as strangers in their own country, a fate suffered by Mongolians in Chinese-administered Inner Mongolia.

"It used to be the Tibetans were protesting against Chinese rule," says Nicholas Bequelin, China researcher with New York-based Human Rights Watch. "But now they're protesting against the destruction of their whole civilization, their whole world. They feel that they are doomed if they don't do something. And when people feel that desperation there's no knowing what it could lead them to do."

That desperation may only increase, as Beijing appears unwilling to making any conciliatory move. In a familiar phrasing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang bitterly criticized the Dalai Lama on March 13, blaming the protests on "a political conspiracy schemed by the Dalai group, aiming to separate Tibet from China and to destroy the normal, harmonious and peaceful life of the Tibetan people."

Beijing is particularly incapable of flexibility when it comes to policy toward ethnic areas of the country because it fears that any sign of weakness could open up the floodgates and lead to widespread demand for autonomy in other areas such as the Muslim province of Xinjiang. "There is just no safety valve for ethnic issues in China," says Bequelin. "It remains one of the most retrograde areas of policy. They just don't have the tools to handle something like this."

The original caption did not indicate where the incident was taking place and gave the impression that the monks were being arrested in China. The incident took place during a march by Tibetan monks in India.