BEIJING - China paraded the Olympic torch through the Tibetan capital yesterday in defiance of critics who called it a provocative move that could undermine the fragile peace in the Himalayan region three months after the government suppressed violent anti-China protests there.
Lhasa remained under virtual lockdown as security forces guarded the carefully selected crowds that cheered the scaled-down two-hour-plus relay from Luobulinka, a traditional Tibetan square, to the mighty Potala Palace, the exiled spiritual leader Dalai Lama's former seat of power.
The Chinese Olympic relay has been dogged by controversy since what was designed as a worldwide goodwill tour showcasing a rising new China became a magnet for trouble.
Vocal protests were staged by pro-Tibetan activists as the torch passed through major cities, including Paris and San Francisco. Soon after the torch returned to China for a cross-country run, organizers were forced to call a time-out when a huge earthquake struck the heartland, killing nearly 70,000 people. Remaining routes were shortened and the remainder of the relay has turned into a tribute not just to the Olympic games but to the earthquake victims.
The Tibetan leg of the journey was considered among the most sensitive because of its symbolism. Beijing is eager to show that Chinese of all ethnic backgrounds are united by a love of country and sports. But critics say it's an offensive means of emphasizing Chinese domination so soon after the military crackdown on what Tibetan activists have called a popular uprising.
"The Chinese government is wielding the Olympic torch as a tool of oppression over the heads of Tibetans still suffering under China's brutal clampdown," said Lhadon Tethong, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet.
Human rights groups condemned the Lhasa relay, saying it could exacerbate tensions before a new round of talks with envoys of the Dalai Lama.
"This provocative decision - with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee - could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China, a New York-based advocacy group.
Militarized police stood arm's distance apart along a route that ended at the foot of the towering 1,000-room Potala Palace.
Local authorities used the event to attack the Dalai Lama, exiled spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and offer a visible gesture of their sovereignty over Tibet.
"Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it," Zhang Qingli, secretary general of the Communist Party in Tibet, said at a relay ceremony.
"We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique."
Only a few hundred hand-picked spectators were allowed along the route to cheer the torch. Most Lhasa residents were told to stay home and watch the relay on television.
According to the Tibetan government in exile, at least 209 protesters were killed in the March unrest. The Chinese officials put the number at 19. The information is difficult to verify because Tibet remains largely sealed off from the outside world. Tourists and journalists are forbidden except by invitation on specially organized reporting trips. Activists say thousands of Tibetans remain unaccounted for after the March riots, and a climate of fear has fallen over the remote Buddhist region.
Ching-Ching Ni writes for the Los Angeles Times. McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this article.