Far-Flung Tibetans Find Unity In Protest

In countries all over the world, protesters take to the streets to oppose Chinese rule of Tibet after demonstrations in the province turned violent. [Editor's note: The caption for an earlier version of this slideshow was incorrectly associated with a photo from Nepal. This version has been corrected.]
By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, March 18, 2008

LANZHOU, China, March 17 -- A group of Tibetan college students, heads downcast, sat silently in the middle of a soccer field Monday as nervous officials, teachers and plainclothes security officers watched from the sidelines. One official walked onto and off the field, pressing the students to return to their dormitories.

On Sunday, about 500 students staged a sit-in here at Northwest Nationalities University, following the uprising in Tibet that has rattled this country over the past week. About 50 students stayed through the night -- an unwelcome display in a country determined to divert attention from controversy.

"They're commemorating their family members who have been killed in Lhasa," said a student with a knapsack decorated with Tibetan embroidery. "It's not convenient to talk now," he added, before slipping a visitor his cellphone number.

In provinces outside China's Tibet Autonomous Region, protests have started to percolate. Some, like the sit-in here in Lanzhou and another at a university in Beijing on Monday, have been quiet vigils that do not directly challenge the government. In other cases, Buddhist monks have clashed with police, and soldiers have been deployed to quash dissent.

The groundswell of activity suggests that anger over the Chinese government's role in Tibet extends far beyond the remote mountainous region, particularly to outlying provinces that are home to an estimated 3 million ethnic Tibetans. Many resent Beijing's criticism of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, and the economic development that has mainly benefited the region's Han Chinese, China's dominant ethnic group.

"What we've seen is a revitalization of a sense of shared Tibetan identity and cultural and religious pride in the last few days," said Kate Saunders, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet.

Well before Beijing declared Tibet part of China in 1951, the region was divided into three parts. The central part resembled what is today the Tibet Autonomous Region, where violence in the capital, Lhasa, has led authorities to blanket the streets with soldiers this week. Other areas of historical Tibet, however, are now part of present-day Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan and Yunnan provinces.

The Tibetans in those provinces live mostly in rural or autonomous areas close to monasteries. In the more prosperous cities, they say, they have been marginalized by an influx of Han Chinese entrepreneurs, who own restaurants passed off as traditionally Tibetan and karaoke bars bedecked with Tibetan prayer flags. Chinese also dominate souvenir shops and tour guide operations at major monasteries.

In recent days, the roads into those areas have grown thick with army convoys. Outsiders have been kept out. Meanwhile, at the Kumbun Monastery on the outskirts of Xining, the capital of Qinghai province, police cars were conspicuously parked inside and outside the grounds Monday. Many of the 700 to 800 monks who live and pray there were too frightened to talk to a reporter.

"I'm not clear about what happened in Lhasa recently," said one monk checking tickets inside. An elderly woman who appeared to work at the monastery said in Mandarin, "I don't speak Chinese."

An important Tibetan holiday Saturday added to crowds at the Labrang Monastery in Xiahe, a heavily Tibetan area of southwest Gansu province, where riot police over the weekend fired tear gas on about 1,000 protesters. Monks were no longer holed up inside the monastery Monday, but the streets were still full of riot police and army soldiers, witnesses said.

"Yesterday, the government gave notices to all hotels saying that we are not allowed to let any foreigners stay," a woman at Xiahe's Hongshi hotel said in a telephone interview.

"Many monks and Tibetan people were arrested and injured," said the woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals. "As a Tibetan, we all like the Dalai Lama. All of us want to see him, even just one glance. We hope he can come back. I support the protesters because they say he should come back, but I'm not thinking about Tibetan independence."

Over the weekend, protests spread to Aba county in Sichuan province, where witnesses told human rights groups that clashes between monks and police had led to seven deaths. On Monday, there were reports of continued protests outside a monastery in Tongren county in Qinghai province's heavily Tibetan Zang Nan autonomous area, and in Maqu county, an area of Gansu province that borders Sichuan.

"It does seem that under modern Chinese rule, and perhaps because of Chinese policies such as its anti-Dalai Lama campaign and its aggressive patriotic education drives, that Tibetan nationalism has increased and brought more sense of shared purpose to Tibetans across the plateau," said Robbie Barnett, director of modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University.

"This appears strongly to lend credence to the Dalai Lama's negotiating position, which is that all the different Tibetan areas within China should be turned into a single administrative entity," Barnett said. "The Chinese have condemned this as a splittist plot."

At Northwest Nationalities University here in Lanzhou, the Gansu provincial capital, dozens of uniformed police officers patrolled the campus entrances Monday. The city's entire police force seemed to have descended on the school.

The student with the embroidered backpack, who said his first name was Agu, explained that teachers had persuaded most of the students at the sit-in to depart. All of the teachers, he said, were Han Chinese.

Another Tibetan student, sitting with friends in the campus cafeteria eating noodles and rice porridge, said the sit-in had been "very peaceful."

"They didn't show a flag saying, 'Free Tibet,' and they aren't calling for independence," he said.

The student said his first name was Da Ke, a Chinese pronunciation of a Tibetan name. "The Dalai Lama is our spiritual and religious leader," he said. "We hope he can come back one day. I agree with his ideas that Tibetan people should have more freedom."

Correspondent Edward Cody in Beijing and researcher Zhang Jie in Lanzhou contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company