Showdown in Tibet

Warren W Smith |
On March 14, the otherworldly calm of Lhasa, Tibet’s holy city, was shattered by riots and gunfire. The spark that triggered unrest in the Tibetan part of what is now a largely ethnic Han Chinese city is unclear, but occurred somewhere near the Ramoche Temple when Chinese security forces attempted to stop a demonstration by monks.

Whatever the details, only a spark was needed to set off the most serious disturbances in Tibet since the riots of 1987-1989, or perhaps since the Tibetan Revolt of March 1959, which sent the Dalai Lama into exile. It was the 49th anniversary of that revolt, on March 10, that led monks from two large monasteries near Lhasa to stage demonstrations, in which many of them were arrested, raising tensions in the city.

While denying much of what subsequently happened, Chinese officials did reveal the scale of the riots: 422 Chinese-owned shops partially or completely burned, more than 200 million yuan (US$28 million) in damage, 325 people injured, and 13 killed – all of them Han Chinese. China admitted to no deaths among the Tibetan protesters, claiming that its security forces had exercised restraint and had not even fired a single shot.

This contradicted Tibetan reports of dozens of deaths, perhaps as many as 100, and accounts of foreign tourists who said they heard shots and saw the bodies of Tibetans gunned down by the security forces. China claimed that the “Dalai Clique” had “organized, premeditated, and carefully engineered and instigated” incidents of “beating, smashing, looting, and burning,” in an attempt to use the upcoming Olympic Games in Beijing to publicize his cause of Tibetan independence. But the only evidence China offered was international Tibetan support groups’ statements that they intended to demonstrate at events associated with the Olympics.

The claim that force had not been used came from the Tibetan head of the supposedly autonomous government of Tibet, Jampa Phuntsok, who was in Beijing at the time for a meeting of China’s National People’s Congress. Significantly, he remained in Beijing, while the Han Chinese head of the Communist Party in Tibet, Zhang Qingli, returned to handle the situation.

Phuntsok also claimed that the People’s Liberation Army had not been used to put down the riot – a sensitive issue because China does not like to admit that the PLA is used internally, as it was during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. He said that only the Public Security Police and People’s Armed Police had been used. However, foreign military experts observed that the type of armored vehicles used in Lhasa and shown on film were of the type issued only to elite PLA units, though their PLA markings were obscured.

They want good relations

In the aftermath of the Lhasa riots, similar disturbances occurred across the Tibetan Plateau, now divided into the Tibet Autonomous Region and several autonomous districts in the neighboring provinces of Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, and Yunnan. More Tibetan deaths were reported, with China admitting that in some of these instances its security forces had opened fire “in self-defense.” Chinese security forces then began to move into all Tibetan areas in large numbers.

China unleashed a barrage of propaganda claiming that the world should condemn the Dalai Lama, not China, for instigating the riots, and that only innocent Chinese had suffered. But the evidence suggests that the riots in Lhasa and elsewhere were an expression of Tibetan frustration at years of Chinese control and repression.

The situation is unlikely to improve. On the contrary, China now reports that it is rounding up “criminals” across Tibet and will “re-educate” them about their misguided beliefs in Tibetan freedom and independence. World leaders have called on China to exercise restraint and begin a dialogue with the Dalai Lama. Neither is likely.

World leaders seem inclined against a boycott of August’s Olympic Games, or even of the opening ceremonies, which will highlight China’s policies aimed at a “harmonious society and harmonious world,” and will certainly feature performances by happy national minorities, including Tibetans. As in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre, the world appears to prefer good economic and diplomatic relations with China over all else.


WARREN W SMITH, a broadcaster with the Tibetan Service of Radio Free Asia, is the author of Tibetan Nation: A History of Tibetan Nationalism and Sino-Tibetan Relations and co-author of the 1997 International Commission of Jurists report Tibet: Human Rights and the Rule of Law.

Leave a comment

Filed under Opinion

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s