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Chinese County in Lockdown After Pro-Tibet Protests

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By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009

BEIJING, Feb. 18 -- The county of Lithang in Sichuan province was under lockdown this week after Tibetan monks, laypeople and nomads clashed with Chinese security forces Sunday and Monday, according to residents.

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Zhou Xiujun, owner of a grocery store, said she witnessed a small protest near the county's main vegetable market Feb. 15 that escalated into a much larger one around lunchtime Feb. 16. On the second day, she said, she saw several hundred Tibetans gathered downtown shouting, "Long live the Dalai Lama," the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists who lives in exile in India. In just a few minutes, she said, squads of police arrived and a melee ensued.

At least one Tibetan protester was swinging a stick, she said, and others were throwing stones. The policemen subdued them using what she called "electronic sticks" and tear gas.

The activist group Free Tibet said the protests were the largest across the Tibetan plateau since violence last spring, which left at least 18 civilians and one police officer dead.

Since last March, Chinese security officials have gone to great lengths to seal off Tibet. No foreign journalists, except on escorted tours, have been allowed into the region, and few Tibetans have been allowed to leave.

Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party secretary for the largest autonomous Tibetan region in China, is a hard-liner famous for his strike-hard, no-tolerance approach to quelling unrest. Tibetans say that their movements are constantly monitored and that even those who are simply suspected of being disloyal to China have been questioned or detained.

With the approach next month of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising of 1959 that ended with the flight of the Dalai Lama to India, the crackdown has become even harsher, residents say. In the capital of Lhasa, for instance, at least 81 people have been detained over the past few weeks, Tibetan advocacy groups said.

London-based Free Tibet said that at least 24 Tibetans were detained after the incidents this week and that two people were carried away by police. The extent of their injuries was unknown. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy, based in India, said 21 people were detained. It said two men were badly beaten and suffered severe injuries.

Officials from the county government, police, and the tourism office of Lithang, which is located in the mountains of the Gardze Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwestern China's Sichuan province, confirmed an incident had taken place but declined to provide details or respond to questions.

"I'm afraid of talking about this with you," one Lithang police officer said by telephone.

"It's a secret. We are not allowed to tell all the truth, information, and what happened to people outside. This is the policy," the officer said.

Since the riots that began last March, Tibetans have said they have been living under oppressive conditions, with raids on thousands of homes and businesses, and people detained for seemingly minor crimes such as having what authorities call "reactionary" music on their cellphones. But only a handful of acts of defiance have been confirmed.

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