As protests spread beyond Lhasa, The Globe examines the environmental, economic and demographic grievances at the root of the bitter conflict
The Globe and Mail
March 21, 2008
More than 100 armed soldiers are camped out in military vehicles in the parking lot of the hotel where Luorang works. His town is locked down, its people trapped inside their homes, ordered to stay off the streets.
But when The Globe and Mail reaches him by telephone, the 35-year-old Tibetan ignores the nearby soldiers and agrees to talk. He is eager to explain why people in his community are angry enough to join the fiercest wave of Tibetan protests in almost 20 years.His words tumble out. He talks of a sacred mountain, holy to the Tibetans, the site of a Tibetan festival, where Chinese mining companies are blasting for gold and silver mines. He talks of the disappearing forests and how there is nothing left for traditional Tibetan medicine. He describes how China prohibited his town from receiving a group of monks from Lhasa last year, and how the monks of his town were banned from travelling to other monasteries.
"If they take away the water and the soil and the resources, how will our people continue to live here?" he asks.
"If our people did not believe in Buddhism, they would have rioted a long time ago. We endured and endured. But now finally it is difficult to endure any more."Luorang's community, an ethnically Tibetan region in Western China, was one of dozens of Tibetan towns that joined the explosion of anti-government protests over the past week.
(The name of his town is not being disclosed to protect him from government reprisals.) When the Buddhist monks of his town rushed onto the streets on March 15, the fate of their holy mountain was one of their biggest grievances.
While the global spotlight was focused on the Tibetan capital of Lhasa, perhaps the most significant and historic development this week was the rapid spread of the protests to the far-flung Tibetan communities of Western China, including the provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, Qinghai and Yunnan.
The Chinese authorities admitted yesterday, for the first time, that the protests had swept across a wide swath of ethnically Tibetan districts, far beyond the borders of the official Tibetan region where Lhasa is located.
"One of the most striking things is that we're now hearing of protests in places where we never heard of monks protesting before," said Robert Barnett, a Tibet specialist at Columbia University in New York.
The scale of the uprising, and the violence on both sides, has shocked the world. But for those who were paying attention, the signs of revolt had been visible for months, if not years.While there is little doubt that the Tibetans are aware of the Beijing Olympics, and the potential impact of their demonstrations in an Olympic year, a closer look at their uprising shows that most of their protests were spontaneous, often in reaction to repressive Chinese measures, and usually had their roots in a vast array of local issues, including environmental, economic and demographic grievances."With or without the Olympics, the situation in Tibet is very grave," said Thubten Samphel, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile.
"The Tibetan people have deep-seated resentments. They feel marginalized and isolated from economic development in Tibet. They feel that they're being reduced to a minority in their own land. They feel very fearful about the survival of their culture and their identity. These are the underlying roots, the sense of despair that they feel. The Olympics may have been a factor, but they were not the major factor.
"Consider, for example, a clash between Chinese security forces and hundreds of ordinary Tibetans in Qinghai province last month, more than two weeks before the latest wave of protests began.
It began, oddly enough, with a balloon seller.On Feb. 21, during a fireworks festival in the town of Tongren in Qinghai province, a Tibetan child tried to buy a balloon from a Chinese vendor. They argued over the price, and the vendor reportedly slapped the child in the face. When an older man began fighting with the balloon seller, the man was allegedly beaten and detained by a Chinese policeman, who was soon surrounded by a crowd of Tibetans.
Hundreds of police reinforcements arrived, violence erupted, stones were hurled, dozens of police and Tibetans were injured, several police vehicles were destroyed and about 200 Tibetans, including monks, were arrested, according to reports last month by Tibetan activist groups and Radio Free Asia.
The next day, several thousand Tibetans marched to the government offices to demand the release of the detainees. The Tibetans chanted "Long Live the Dalai Lama" and pro-independence slogans, until most of the detainees were released."Something as small as a balloon can spark it," said Matt Whitticase, a spokesman for the London-based Free Tibet group. "It shows how frayed the Tibetan feelings are. They feel that they are treated as second-class citizens."
Many analysts say the current wave of protests can be traced back to two key events in 2006: the completion of the new railway to Lhasa, which has brought millions of Chinese tourists and migrants to Tibet, and the appointment of a tough new Communist regional boss, Zhang Qingli, who announced a "life or death" battle against the Dalai Lama.
Mr. Zhang is a member of China's ethnic Han majority, and in an interview in August of 2006, he admitted that he spoke "just a few words" of the Tibetan language. He regarded the Tibetans as children who must be indoctrinated with a love of China, rather than a love of Buddhism.
"Those who do not love their country are not qualified to be human beings," Mr. Zhang said in one interview.
"The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need," he said on another occasion. "The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans."Under Mr. Zhang's hard-line rule, Tibetans were forced to endure a near-constant diet of mandatory "patriotic education" sessions, along with a host of other restrictive measures, including bans on religious activity by Tibetan students and officials. Arrests of Tibetan dissidents increased threefold in 2007, compared with the previous year. The crackdown was "extraordinarily vigorous" and triggered massive discontent in Tibet, said Prof. Barnett, the Columbia University scholar.
"There was a whittling down of the Tibetan culture," he said. "There was no security threat from Tibet, so why did China's policies need to turn so hard-line in the past two years? All of this really exacerbated the situation in Tibet.
"The "patriotic education" campaigns, which forced monks to denounce the Dalai Lama and declare allegiance to China, had previously been held once or twice a year. But after Mr. Zhang's arrival, some monasteries began receiving education campaigns for up to 18 days a month. Some monks refused to sign formal statements denouncing the Dalai Lama, and one monk reportedly committed suicide rather than sign the statement.
In July, 2007, China introduced another restriction: a rule that Tibetan lamas were not permitted to reincarnate into "living Buddhas" without government permission. It was a direct attack on one of the pillars of traditional Tibetan Buddhist belief.
The railway, meanwhile, was bringing a huge influx of Han Chinese into Lhasa, turning it increasingly into a Chinese-dominated city. Even in the city's ancient centre, around the sacred Jokhang temple, Chinese shopkeepers and Chinese tourists soon outnumbered the Tibetans. On the roof of the Jokhang temple, Chinese tourists harassed the monks, grabbing them and forcing them to pose for photos. The monks openly told journalists of their dislike of the new railway.
"The Tibetans saw it as a second invasion," said Tsering Wangdu Shakya, a Tibetan scholar at the University of British Columbia."They felt swamped by the Chinese. It was Sinicizing the whole region. Thousands of tourists were pouring in, and prices were going up.
"Beginning last summer, there was a noticeable upsurge in protests by Tibetans across the official Tibetan region and in the broader Tibetan ethnic sphere in Western China.
In one district of Sichuan province, for example, about 300 Tibetan villagers smashed mining equipment and attacked workers in an attempt to halt Chinese mining activities on a sacred Tibetan mountain. As recently as March 6, there was another little-noticed protest in the same district of Sichuan.
When the latest protests began in Lhasa last week, nobody should have been surprised. Indeed, the Lhasa riots may have been sparked by an overreaction from Chinese security forces who were anticipating a protest by the monks on March 10, a frequent date for protests because it is the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule that led the Dalai Lama to flee to India.
Video footage of the March 10 incident, filmed by Chinese security forces and broadcast by the BBC yesterday, shows that it began with a simple sit-down by a group of monks at a Lhasa monastery. Four days later, Lhasa was in flames.
***1. March 10, Llasa: Hundreds of monks march into Tibet's capital to mark the 49th anniversary of a quashed rebellion against communist rule.
- March 12, Lhasa: Thousands of Chinese police fire tear gas at more than 600 monks in street protests.
- March 14, Lhasa: Up to 400 residents and monks attack non-Tibetan businesses and individuals. The Tibetan government in exile has said 80 people died in clashes with security forces. Chinese officials say only 13 died, and were killed by rioters.
2. March 14, Xiahe: Monks rally at one of Tibetan Buddhism's most important monasteries.
3. March 15, Kardze: Police kill three locals during clashes, according to a Tibetan exile group.
4. March 16, Tongren: Demonstrations reported at a monastery.
5. March 16, Machu: Tibetans hurl Molotov cocktails and set a police station and market on fire. The government in exile reports 19 killed.
6. March 16, Lanzhou: Students hold a sit-down protest.
7. March 17, Beijing: Close to 100 students hold a silent candlelight vigil under police guard.
8. March 18, Hezuo: Tibetans on horseback and motorcycles attack a government compound but are dispersed by paramilitary forces.
- March 19: China turns foreigners back from entering Tibet and says that about 160 rioters have turned themselves in.
- March 20, Lhasa: China says it has charged 24 suspects.
9. Undated, Taktser: Police seal the Dalai Lama's birthplace.