China-Tibet 3rdLd-Writethru 03-14
Witnesses say protests turn violent in Tibet with police cars set on fire, gunfire reported
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By TINI TRAN
Associated Press Writer
BEIJING (AP) — Angry protesters set shops ablaze and gunfire was reported in Tibet’s regional capital Friday as the largest demonstrations in two decades against Chinese rule turned violent months ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
The protests, which began Monday in a stunning show of defiance by Buddhist monks, cast a shadow over Beijing’s efforts to portray China as unified and prosperous in the run-up to the games.
Protesters set shops and police vehicles on fire in central Lhasa, state media and witnesses said. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing warned Americans to stay away, saying it had "received firsthand reports from American citizens in the city who report gunfire and other indications of violence."
The protests appeared to be attracting large numbers of ordinary Tibetans venting pent-up anger against Chinese rule after days of smaller, sporadic and mostly peaceful demonstrations by hundreds of monks supporting Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Shops were set on fire along two main streets surrounding the Jokhang temple, Ramoche monastery, and the city’s main Chomsigkang market, witnesses said.
"It was chaos everywhere. I could see fires, smoke, cars and motorcycles burning," said a Tibetan guide who spoke by telephone. Like other Tibetans, he spoke on condition his name not be used, fearing retaliation by authorities.
He said the whole road in the main Barkor shopping area surrounding the Jokhang temple "seemed to be on fire."
The guide said armed police in riot gear backed by armored vehicles were blocking major intersections in the city center, along with the broad square in front of the Potala, the former winter home of the Dalai Lama.
"As I approached Potala Square, I heard cannon fire, louder than rifles. Others told me police were firing tear gas along Beijing Zhonglu, west of the Potala," he said.
In a terse report, China’s official Xinhua News Agency said people had been hospitalized with injuries and vehicles and shops torched, but gave few details.
Another Lhasa resident said military police had closed all roads leading to the city center.
"The situation is quite serious. There’s a curfew in the city and I can see military police block all the roads to the center of the city. Nearly all the stores and shops are closed," the resident said.
Chinese Communist troops occupied Tibet in 1951 and Beijing continues to rule the region with a heavy hand. Beijing enforces strict controls on religious institutions and routinely vilifies the Dalai Lama, who fled to India in 1959 amid an aborted uprising against Chinese rule.
This week’s demonstrations began on the anniversary of the 1959 uprising, with monks from one monastery demanding the release of monks detained last fall. Political demands soon came to the fore. Other monks and ordinary Tibetans demanded independence and unfurled the Tibetan flag, a capital offense in China.
Demonstrators took encouragement from the Dalai Lama, whose speech Monday to mark the uprising accused China of "unimaginable and gross violations of human rights, denial of religious freedom and thepoliticizationn of religious issues" in Tibet.
The protests have become the largest and most sustained in Lhasa since Beijing crushed a wave of pro-independence demonstrations in 1989.
Beijing maintains that Tibet is historically a part of China. But many Tibetans argue the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries and accuse China of trying to crush Tibetan culture by swamping it with Han people, the majority Chinese ethnic group.
China has also tried to weed out supporters of the Dalai Lama, who won the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, from among the influential Buddhist clergy.
Tibetans inside and outside the country have sought to use the Olympic Games’ high profile to call attention to their cause. Beijing has accused the Dalai Lama — who many Tibetans consider their rightful ruler — of trying to sabotage the games.
The city’s three biggest and historically important monasteries three — known as the "Three Pillars of Tibet" — were sealed off by thousands of soldiers and armed police, the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia reported Friday.
Monks at the Sera monastery launched a hunger strike Thursday to demand that armed police withdraw from the monastery grounds and detained monks be released, RFA reported.
At the Drepung Monastery, two Buddhist monks are in critical condition after attempting to commit suicide by slashing their wrists, RFA said, citing authoritative sources.
The London-based International Campaign for Tibet said monks from the Ganden monastery mounted protests Thursday, becoming the last of the three to join in the demonstrations.
Tourists were mainly staying off the streets and were being warned away from all the monasteries, said one tourist staying at a Lhasa hotel.
One hotel worker said hotels in the area were placed under lockdown, though an official from the Tibetan government’s office of emergency affairs who identified himself as Ren Yong said people had dispersed.
"The Red Army is downtown. It’s not safe to walk around. All the major monasteries are closed," said the tourist, who refused to give her name or her nationality. "Tourists don’t feel comfortable walking around because police are all over."
In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said: "Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture ... We regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing. The president has said consistently that Beijing needs to have adialogueg with the Dalai Lama."
The Chinese government was trying to keep foreigners from getting in, with travel agents in China and neighboring Nepal refusing to issue the special permits needed to visit the region.
It is extremely difficult to get independent verification of events in Tibet since China maintains rigid control over the area. Journalists are rarely granted access except under highly controlled circumstances.
Officials who answered phones at police and Communist Party offices in Tibet on Friday said they had no information about the violence and refused to comment.
The unrest comes as China holds its annual legislative session, which puts on a high-profile display of national unity, especially for minority groups such as Tibetans.
Hundreds of monks from Labrang monastery were also protesting in the streets of Xiahe, a predominantly Tibetan county in western China’s Gansu province, said Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign. There were no reports of police action so far, he said.
On the Net:
International Campaign for Tibet:
China’s views on Tibet: