Violent Tibet protests spreading in China

The Baltimore Sun

BEIJING -- Defying a major deployment of Chinese security forces, ethnic Tibetan protesters unfurled their forbidden national flag and set fire to a police station as the violence that by some reports has claimed 80 lives spread into Sichuan province and other parts of western China.

The exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, met yesterday with reporters in the mountain town of Dharamsala, India, and told them he was powerless to stop the protests.

"It's a people's movement, so it's up to them. Whatever they do, I have to act accordingly," he was quoted as telling the BBC.

Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama, said separately that the exiled movement's sources inside Tibet had counted 80 bodies of people killed in clashes over the weekend.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a statement yesterday urged Beijing to show restraint and to "release monks and others who have been detained solely for the peaceful expression of their views."

The protests began a week ago with a peaceful procession of monks in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, and have quickly evolved into the largest outpouring of Tibetan rage against Chinese rule in 20 years.

The Chinese have deployed thousands of troops, both from the People's Armed Police, as the paramilitary forces are called, and the People's Liberation Army. But just as soon as the troops stamp out one protest, another pops up.

"You have a decade of pent-up resentment. It had been lurking all this time just beneath the surface," said Ronald Schwartz, a Canadian scholar who wrote a book about the last serious protests inside Tibet, which were in the late 1980s. "There are many Tibetan youth out there with a lot of frustration and bitterness."

Chinese troops seized control of Tibet in 1950 and suppressed a rebellion in 1959. Since then, the Dalai Lama has led a self-proclaimed government in exile.

Lhasa was like a ghost town yesterday, with residents barricaded inside and paramilitary troops and armored vehicles lining the streets. But the violence was seeping outside the borders of Tibet proper into parts of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan provinces.

The most serious reported clash took place yesterday at the Aba Monastery, perched in the mountains of Sichuan province. At the end of morning prayers, thousands of monks erupted into cheers of "Free Tibet" and "Return the Dalai Lama," according to a report by the Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy.

Shortly afterward, a crowd of ethnic Tibetans at a town nearby reportedly attacked a police station and government offices with Molotov cocktails.

Seven people were reported to have been killed.

Information about the clashes was difficult to verify. Chinese have deployed thousands of troops and set up roadblocks in part to prevent journalists from reaching the scene of the protests. Most foreign tourists were ordered out of Tibet over the weekend. Internet connections were severed in much of Lhasa. In Beijing, Chinese censors have blocked access to the Web sites of many foreign newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, and the video-sharing Web site YouTube.

In the coming days, demands are likely to come from Washington, D.C., and European capitals for monitors to examine what happened. Among the mysteries are how the peaceful protests in Lhasa escalated into riots, who instigated the violence and who was killed.

The Dalai Lama's office, which released the death statistics yesterday, said that 26 out of the 80 victims were found near Drapchi Prison. The prison is known to house long-term political prisoners. Other victims' bodies were found outside a Buddhist temple, a cathedral and a mosque, his office said.

Pro-Tibet activists suggest that most of the victims were Tibetan protesters gunned down by Chinese troops. But the Chinese claim that a large number of the victims were Chinese attacked by Tibetans.

The approach of the summer Olympics, due to open Aug. 8 in Beijing, has turned up the international pressure many notches on the Chinese government, already under fire for human-rights violations.

"If the Tibetans attacked people like the Chinese say, [officials] should let people in to find out ... If it is discovered that Chinese troops fired on unarmed demonstrators like at Tiananmen, you will hear a lot of people calling for a boycott," said a European diplomat, referring to the military's suppression of 1989 protests at Tiananmen Square, during which hundreds and perhaps thousands of demonstrators were killed.

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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