Heavily Guarded Olympic Torch Is Conveyed Through Tibetan Capital

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, June 22, 2008

BEIJING, June 21 -- Under tight security Saturday, the Olympic torch relay wound through the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, where deadly rioting in March has left a climate of fear and a heavy police presence.

The Chinese government's crackdown after the riots -- the biggest uprising against Beijing in nearly 20 years -- prompted international criticism and violent protests as the torched passed through London, Paris, San Francisco and other cities.

But the Lhasa leg, which lasted just over two hours, went smoothly as thousands gathered for a tightly controlled event meant to demonstrate national unity.

Chinese authorities initially refused to alter the route through Tibet in the face of criticism over China's human rights record. But after last month's earthquake in Sichuan province, they agreed to briefly suspend the relay out of respect for the quake victims, and the Tibetan leg was shortened from three days to one.

But activists continue to sharply criticize the Lhasa portion of the relay, as well as a separate leg that scaled Mount Everest, as an attempt by China to symbolize its control over the Himalayan region.

"This provocative decision -- with the blessing of the International Olympic Committee -- could aggravate tensions and undermine the fragile process to find a peaceful long-term solution for Tibet and the region," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China. "The government's insistence on parading the torch through Lhasa can only undermine the respect and trust required for a genuine dialogue process with the Dalai Lama," the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader.

Chinese leaders accuse the Dalai Lama of sparking the riots, in which many Tibetans targeted businesses owned by Han Chinese. The leaders consider him a dangerous separatist but have expressed a willingness to restart negotiations with him about greater autonomy for the region.

On Saturday, a 75-year-old Tibetan mountaineer, Gonpo, kicked off the relay in Lhasa, receiving the flame from Qin Yizhi, the secretary for the Lhasa city committee of the Communist Party.

"I'm delighted and I'm excited," Gonpo said on state-run television. "It's a glorious, big event."

The flame then traveled from Norbulingka, the former summer palace of the Dalai Lama, to the square below the Potala Palace, the traditional seat of Tibetan rulers.

Paramilitary troops and police lined the route, as carefully screened Han Chinese spectators in red T-shirts and headbands waved flags and shouted "Go, China" in unison.

The torchbearers, who ran for just a couple of minutes each before switching off, were tightly controlled by four security guards running alongside them, four more on motorcycles and 20 guards in two columns on both sides of the torch. The four guards on foot often stopped torchbearers from moving to the side of the road to pass the flame, pushing them back into the center of the road to make the transfer.

About half of the 156 torchbearers were ethnic Tibetan, the official state-run New China News Agency said, including many Lhasa officials. Many of the rest appeared to be Han Chinese.

On Friday, the vice governor of Tibet, Palma Trily, announced that 12 more people had been sentenced for their roles in the March 14 rioting, without giving any further details. He said an additional 1,157 people had been released from detention over minor offenses related to the protests.

Despite Beijing's promises of open media access for the Aug. 8-24 Olympic Games, Tibet remains closed to foreign tourists and foreign media -- apart from a few closely monitored government tours.

Palma Trily said the region would soon reopen to foreign tourists but gave no specifics.

News researcher Liu Songjie contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company