Trouble in Tibet

Saturday, March 15, 2008

CHINA HAS BEEN planning carefully to prevent "unharmonious" elements from sullying its pristine 2008 Olympic Games. It has cracked down on dissidents all over China, and it has even closed off access to Mount Everest to prevent disruption of the Olympic torch relay. Despite all these measures, protests erupted across Tibet this week.

On Monday, the 49th anniversary of an unsuccessful uprising against China, hundreds of Tibetan monks began marching into Lhasa and were stopped by police. A second protest the next day devolved into chaos when police reportedly used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and since then laypeople have joined the movement and turned violent. The violence escalated yesterday, with dozens of wounded flooding into hospitals.

Historically, China has not been terribly hesitant to use force in quelling protests, particularly protests advocating Tibetan "splittism." In the first few days, Chinese police appeared to be restraining themselves, perhaps aware that the world was watching, but since then there have been reports of gunfire and mass arrests. Anywhere between a handful and a hundred Tibetans have been reported killed.

These are the largest protests in two decades, and they are part of a greater narrative of repression of the Tibetan people. For decades the Chinese government has afforded the "Tibet Autonomous Region" little in the way of autonomy, and it has punished monks and laypeople for devotion to their exiled religious leader, the Dalai Lama. After decades of repression, monks and other Tibetans have chosen to seize the moment. They, like others with grievances against China for its human rights policies, realize that these few months ahead of the Olympics present their best chance to gain the world's interest.

In light of the violence of the past few days, several governments -- including that of the United States -- have asked China to show restraint. The Dalai Lama has issued a similar statement that also exhorted Tibetans to refrain from violence. The international community should continue to urge China to talk with the Tibetan leader, who in recent years has acknowledged Chinese rule and asked only for greater cultural independence for his people. World leaders should also urge China to follow its constitution, which requires freedom of speech and religion, as well as self-rule for ethnic minorities. It is, after all, the lack of these rights in practice that is pushing resentful Tibetans into extremism.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company