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Chinese Authorities Surround Monasteries in Tibet, Witnesses Say

By Jill Drew
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 14, 2008

BEIJING, March 14 -- Police surrounded at least two Buddhist monasteries Thursday in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in an attempt to contain an increasingly desperate protest by monks who oppose China's rule of the region, according to news reports.

Two monks attempted suicide Thursday in the Drepung Monastery near Lhasa, according to Radio Free Asia, a nonprofit news organization funded by the U.S. government. At nearby Sera Monastery, monks began a hunger strike to protest the authorities' response to demonstrations that began Monday to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising against the Chinese, Radio Free Asia reported.

Meanwhile, monks launched small-scale protests at monasteries tightly controlled by the Chinese in traditionally Tibetan areas of Qinghai province, which borders Tibet, the Associated Press reported. "For the past few days, we have been on high alert for protests and other formal gatherings by monks as this has been a widespread occurrence," said an official in the local Bureau of Religious Affairs, according to the AP.

The rare demonstrations, believed to be the largest in two decades, come at a sensitive time for China, which is already under fire for its human rights record as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympic Games in August.

Confrontations between monks and police began Monday. Nine monks and two laypeople assembled on Barkor Plaza in front of Jokhang Monastery in Lhasa to commemorate the failed 1959 uprising -- in which thousands were killed, and which led the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to flee to India.

On Monday, the demonstrators were arrested, and police then stopped about 400 monks marching from Drepung and arrested several, according to news reports.

On Wednesday, as monks in the Drepung and Sera monasteries protested the arrests, police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd and surrounded both monasteries, news reports said.

Service on at least two telephone lines to the monasteries in the remote mountainous regions in western China was cut, and calls to other lines went unanswered Friday. Travel to Tibet is heavily restricted, making it difficult to independently verify the reports.

In Beijing, Qin Gang, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, blamed the protests on the Dalai Lama, calling them "a deliberate political plot of the Dalai Lama group to cause social unrest, separate Tibet from China and wreck the stable, harmonious and normal life of the Tibetan people."

Sonam Dagpo, secretary for information and international relations of the Dalai Lama's administration in Dharmsala, India, denied any involvement. "His holiness did not ask anyone to protest," he said.

Chinese-run neighborhood committees in Lhasa were doing house-to-house inspections looking for Tibetan monks or nuns who had not registered and were therefore in the city illegally, Radio Free Asia reported.

Fu Jun, a spokesman for the local Chinese government in Lhasa, said reports of the protests intensifying were "absurd and sensationalized." He refused to discuss specifics. "It's not necessary for us to explain it one by one," Fu said

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