China Tightens Grip as Tibet Revolt Hits 50-Year Mark

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 16, 2009

XINING, China -- First came the armed checkpoints. Next, China Mobile sent word to customers in Tibet that text messaging would be interrupted for nearly two months. By Tuesday, police armed with guns containing rubber bullets stopped buses traveling to the capital of a Tibetan prefecture in Qinghai province, checked passengers' bags, questioned monks and berated drivers who carried foreigners.

Many Tibetan areas in China felt under siege last week, as authorities launched a show of force to prevent protests commemorating a failed Tibetan uprising that began 50 years ago on March 10. Residents described a life of increased restrictions, large and small, and admitted to simmering anger and frustration at heavy-handed security following last year's riots in Lhasa, the administrative capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

"This morning, a group of armed police passed my shop," said Ajijia, owner of a business that sells traditional Tibetan paintings near Longwu Monastery. "A Tibetan passerby tried to take a photo with his cellphone but the police waved their sticks and threatened him, telling him not to take their picture."

Like other shopkeepers, Ajijia said she lost money after local officials asked them to close their stores earlier. "The government has doubts about Tibetan people. We do nothing wrong, so why do they treat us like this? Yesterday, a monk told me that seeing the police made him so angry that his heart almost jumps out of his throat. I have the same feeling," she said, patting her chest with her hand.

Behind Longwu Monastery, police with shields blocked mountain paths on Wednesday, preventing monks from burning an aromatic plant on the hillsides.

"If we want to go anywhere outside the town, we are asked to check our ID cards. If you forget your ID, the police will call the monastery to make sure that we aren't lying," said a young monk named Jinmei. "Before, they didn't check."

But Jinmei, who listens to Indian pop music and spends his time typing pages from a Tibetan medicine book into a computer, said he was grateful that his life was not completely disrupted. "I am satisfied because they allow us to read our sutras and go out. I don't know anything about politics and how others feel, but I cannot say that what happened last year is a bad thing," he said, referring to the protests.

Last March, initially peaceful protests commemorating the original 1959 uprising turned into deadly rioting. Monks complained they were not allowed to read their sutras, or Buddhist scriptures.

China says at least 19 people died in the initial uprising, most of them Han Chinese civilians. Tibet's government-in-exile says 220 Tibetans died in the government crackdown that followed. Authorities have sentenced 76 people and detained more than 950 in connection with the protests, state media said.

"No one led us to do it, but all the monks had the same idea that day, because we've been repressed for so many years. Actually, we didn't shout any reactionary slogans, we just cried together," said a monk named Lobsang, recalling how last year's events spiraled out of control. "Then police beat us with electric prods and used tear gas. About 270 monks and ordinary people were caught afterwards, so we sat in front of the government offices, asking them to release people. The government released some people, little by little, but they came out with broken legs or head injuries. Some could not even walk by themselves."

Longwu Monastery was then surrounded by police, Lobsang said. "Monks planned to read sutras the next day as they usually do, but they didn't allow us to do so. They controlled the whole monastery. We could do nothing but stay in our room. Police told us to stay inside, otherwise they would arrest more people," he said. "In fact, more than 100 monks were arrested, and a senior lama was injured."

This year, following the Tibetan Lunar New Year celebrations late last month, the government imposed a new policy requiring monks to get special permission if they want to leave the monastery together, in groups of three or four. "The day before yesterday, I went to Labrang Monastery to get some sutras. I had to change my robes. Everyone who enters Labrang must take their clothes off for a security check first," Lobsang said. Labrang, a monastery in the Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Region of Gansu province, was the site of large protests and arrests last year.

Lobsang's account could not be independently verified, but the details were consistent with eyewitness reports passed on to groups that advocate more autonomy for Tibet.

China's Foreign Ministry reacted angrily to a U.S. congressional resolution passed last week that encouraged an end to "repression" in Tibet, saying the measure proposed by "a few anti-China representatives disregards the history and reality of Tibet." Central government officials say Western politicians fail to understand the economic growth China has brought to Tibet, and they accuse Western media of trying to separate Tibet from China. In Beijing on Friday, Premier Wen Jiabao said the Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, was "not an ordinary religious figure but a political exile" exploited by Western countries.

Tibetans argue that they have not benefited from China's economic boom and that the government policies adversely affect their livelihood.

In at least 17 counties of the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Sichuan province, cellphone messaging and Internet service were cut off in mid-February, according to Woeser, a Beijing-based Tibetan blogger who lives under surveillance but has contacts in many Tibetan areas. "Phone calls from foreign countries to Tibetan areas cannot get through," she wrote.

The owner of an Internet cafe in Ma'erkang county, in the Aba Qiang and Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, said he had been without Internet service for a week. "The whole prefecture has no Internet connection now," said the owner, surnamed He. "There was no notice, it was just cut."

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