Trouble in Tibet

Lee Hudson Teslik
Council on Foreign Relations
Monday, March 17, 2008; 1:44 PM

At the top of the world, there's trouble afoot. A weeklong conflict between Chinese authorities and Tibetan protestors escalated sharply March 17, with China's military issuing a mandate (FT) for demonstrators to surrender -- or face violent repercussions. Chinese troops also moved to seal off the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, blocking movement of people in and out of the city. An eyewitness report from the Economist's China correspondent paints an ominous scene, with residents of Lhasa too frightened to emerge from their homes. Reuters reports conflicts between protestors and Chinese military may have already resulted in as many as eighty deaths. The protests mark the largest uprising in Tibet in nearly two decades, threaten to incite political tension in neighboring India, and could potentially complicate China's political situation ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games.

Protests began in the autonomous Himalayan province of China on March 10 with Buddhist monks staging demonstrations in support of Tibetan independence. The BBC notes that the Chinese media has generally shied away from the story. The Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua quotes one Tibetan government official saying secessionist efforts in the region are "doomed to fail" and encouraging Tibetans to refrain from further protests. But the Dalai Lama, a leading proponent of Tibetan independence, struck a defiant tone, saying he would not urge protests to stop (NYT) but that he felt "helpless" in the face of military violence against protestors.

Tensions between China and Tibet have persisted since China claimed control of the territory in 1959. Tibetans historically enjoyed long periods of independent rule, as outlined in this analysis (PDF) from the East-West Center Washington, a research organization. Many say they remain loyal to the Dalai Lamas, the traditional magistrates of the region. Analysts say the current uprising could also spotlight tensions between China and India, where the Dalai Lama has been in exile since 1959. Pranab Mukherjee, India's foreign minister, said India would hold firm (Business Standard) on its position not to allow Tibetan sympathizers in India to cross the India-Tibet border into Tibet, for reasons of maintaining regional stability. The Times of India reports the issue has also stirred internal tensions in New Delhi, with several opposition parties calling for more forceful action from the Indian government.

The protests also seem likely to emerge as yet another thorn in China's side as its officials attempt to keep a tight rein on domestic problems in advance of this summer's Olympic Games in Beijing. Critics are demanding a laundry list of reforms from China on issues ranging from domestic repression to the crisis in Sudan's Darfur region. The BBC reports that the turmoil over Tibet only exacerbates China's frustration about the international criticisms it has drawn in the run-up to the games.

Meanwhile, many editorial writers have seized on the Tibet protests as a chance to air further complaints about China. An op-ed from the Indian agency Rediff says China "dishonors the Olympic spirit" with its doings in Tibet. A piece from the British paper the Guardian calls on policymakers to use the Olympics to pressure China not to use violence in Tibet. An op-ed in the Christian Science Monitor, meanwhile, lambasts Beijing for its political involvement in various political hotspots -- Darfur, Burma, Iran -- and also pressures U.S. officials to use the Olympics games as a lever of political influence.

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