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Thunder from Tibet


Every so often, between the time a book leaves its publisher and the time it reaches its readers, events occur that change the ways it can be read. Such is the case with Pico Iyer’s account of the fourteenth Dalai Lama, the exiled leader of Tibet. The eruption of major protests in March in the former mountain kingdom has rendered Iyer’s gentle study of spirituality in the global age one that is less likely now to be seen as an inquiring portrait of a major thinker of our times than to be scanned for any sign of political prescience or treasured for the recollection of an innocence since lost. Few predicted the intensity of recent events inside Tibet, nor can anyone now be certain of their outcome.1

On the afternoon of March 10, the forty-ninth anniversary of the failed uprising against Chinese rule in 1959—Tibet had come under the control of the People’s Republic of China following the Chinese invasion of 1950—three hundred or more monks from Drepung Monastery began an orderly march toward the center of Lhasa, five miles to the east. Instead of calling for independence as in previous protests, they made specific demands such as the release of five monks detained the previous October for celebrating the award in Washington of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama. They were still well outside the city center when they were stopped at a checkpoint, ringed with China’s People’s Armed Police (PAP), a special paramilitary force that deals primarily with internal dissent. Some fifty of the monks were arrested straightaway and their colleagues staged a sit-down in the street where, joined by another hundred or so monks during the afternoon, they remained for some twelve hours. A new form of protest had taken hold.

Tibetan exiles have long made the claim—denied by the Chinese government—that several hundred thousand Tibetans were killed by the Chinese between the 1950 invasion and the beginning of “liberalization and opening up” in 1979. Conditions improved markedly for several years after that, but a spate of official criticism of the Dalai Lama in 1987 led to a series of protests in Lhasa calling again for Tibetan independence. There were, according to unofficial reports I compiled during the nine years that followed, some 213 pro-independence protests in Tibet. Some 160 of these have been independently confirmed. Only five involved more than ten or twenty people in Lhasa, and four of those had escalated only when laypeople witnessed police beating the initial handful of protesters. In 1990 the police were ordered to switch from what Jiang Zemin, then Chinese Party secretary, called “passive” to “active” policing, the former meaning (crudely) that you beat or shoot protesters once they start their demonstrations, the latter that you take action against them in advance or within moments of their arrival. The authorities learned to handle these incidents within two or three minutes after they began, taking protesters out of sight quickly before a crowd could gather.

By 1996 Tibetans had largely given up street protests, perhaps sensing that the state was immune to them or that the foreign press would publish little or nothing unless violence was involved. Besides, the average prison sentence was 6.5 years for each participant, and upward of three thousand were detained during this period for peaceful protests or possession of forbidden documents and videos. Alternatives were devised, but were rare—a solitary gesture in August 1999 by a Tibetan carpenter who climbed a flagpole with a Tibetan flag during a sports convention and later died in custody, apparently by his own hand; a protest in Lhasa by Drepung monks within their monastery confines in November 2005; a wave of protests against the wearing of fur from endangered species in 2006; and a march about the lack of jobs for graduates. But since the mid-1990s there had not been a political protest in the streets of Lhasa.

The young monks of Drepung Monastery meet each afternoon to practice their skills in philosophical debate, and it was one such session that spilled out into the protest on March 10. They had several reasons to be antagonized about China’s policies in Tibet, besides what some probably see as nearly sixty years of foreign occupation. Many of these reasons can be traced to restrictions on religion and culture introduced in 1994 in order to erode the suspected sources of Tibetan nationalism.

Such measures include campaigns forcing Tibetans to denounce the Dalai Lama; an unprecedented ban on pictures or worship of him; a prohibition on the construction of new monasteries and on any increase in the number of monks; and a ban on students and government employees having religious possessions or carrying out religious practices. During the last two years, tension has been further increased by the forced relocation of 250,000 farmers to roadside houses, partly at their own expense; the much-publicized opening in 2006 of the Chinese railway line connecting Tibet to neighboring Qinghai Province, with its implicit encouragement of yet more Chinese migration to Tibetan towns; and the announcement by the Chinese government of a plan for the settlement of 100,000 Tibetan nomads. It was made clear by the Chinese authorities that public criticism of any of these policies would be unwelcome if not dangerous.

No doubt the monks were aware—through leaflets sent secretly from Tibetans in exile or foreign radio broadcasts in Tibetan—of exile protests taking place that day in India. They may have also calculated that heightened international attention on China because of the Olympics would deter the police from using lethal force. Chinese government claims of outside instigation are thus not necessary to explain why the monks chose to mark this anniversary with public action.

The police and the paramilitary forces that stopped the demonstration in Lhasa on March 10 were clearly under orders to use restraint. They did not open fire, and after some scuffles they allowed negotiators to talk the monks into returning to the monastery. Early that evening things got tougher in Barkor Square, in the center of Lhasa, when fifteen monks carried the forbidden Tibetan national flag and called for independence: all were dragged away and were later charged with “gathering to create a disturbance by shouting reactionary slogans” and “premeditatedly carrying homemade reactionary flags” (they are currently in detention awaiting trial).

The last two men to bear the flag in Lhasa had been shot dead on the spot by the People’s Armed Police in December 1988—this time the protesters were arrested without immediate violence, at least in public view. When five hundred monks marched from Sera Monastery the following day on behalf of those fifteen arrested monks, the PAP used tear gas briefly, but did not open fire and the monks succeeded in holding a seven-hour sit-down in the street. It looked like a new era of protest had begun, one in which the monks had won themselves a little negotiating space within the Lhasa body politic. But within three days, what had at first seemed a Burmese form of peaceful protest turned into something much more violent. Tibet was about to experience its most serious unrest since the 1960s.

At around midday on Friday, March 14, four days after the initial Lhasa protest, a small group of monks at Ramoche, the temple founded in the seventh century by Wencheng, the legendary Tang princess and symbol of Chinese–Tibetan unity, set out from their compound to start a small protest march. They were soon stopped by police in a minor confrontation—which appears to have been exacerbated by Tibetans’ anger at the presence of plainclothes police in the crowd. Unlike the great monasteries, Ramoche is in the heart of Lhasa, and opens onto a busy market street in one of the few areas of the city that remains a largely Tibetan quarter. Members of the public, apparently aroused by rumors that monks detained that Monday had been beaten in custody, began to attack the police and a small squad of PAP sent in to support them.

The police and soldiers were pelted with stones, their cars were burned, and, pursued by a group of stone-throwing youths, they fled. No reinforcements were sent into the area for at least three hours (one Western journalist who witnessed the events saw no police for twenty-four hours), though they were waiting on the outskirts. It was the traditional response of the Chinese security forces to serious unrest—to wait for orders from Party leaders on whether to shoot or not—but the hours of inaction left the citizenry unprotected and allowed the violence to escalate. (The government announced on April 9 that wily monks had “misled” them into sending the security forces to the city suburbs.)

In this vacuum, a number of Tibetans turned from attacking police to attacking the next available symbol of Chinese governance, the Chinese migrant population. The rapid increase of migrants in Tibetan towns (they already were 34 percent of the Lhasa population when official figures were last made available in 2000, and this figure probably excludes temporary residents and the military) had created uneasy resentment—until then silent—among the indigenous population. About a thousand Chinese-owned shops were set on fire by rioters who were seen by foreign tourists igniting cooking gas cylinders or dousing shops in gasoline. According to The Economist‘s correspondent James Miles, the only accredited foreign journalist in Lhasa at the time,

almost every [Chinese or Chinese Muslim] business was either burned, looted, destroyed, smashed into, the property therein hauled out into the streets, piled up, burned. It was an extraordinary outpouring of ethnic violence of a most unpleasant nature to watch.

Miles saw Chinese passersby, including a child of about ten years old, pelted with stones, and several Western tourists described hard-core rioters beating random Chinese civilians with enough force to have killed them. Eleven Chinese civilians and a Tibetan were burned to death after hiding in shops set on fire by the rioters, and a policeman and six other civilians died from beatings or unknown causes, according to the Chinese government.

Later, the PAP moved in, shooting from time to time, leading to an unknown number of casualties. The exile Tibetan government has said that eighty Tibetans were shot dead in Lhasa, while the Chinese government says that its forces never opened fire; just what happened when the security forces moved in remains unclear because no tourists saw Tibetans being shot and most foreign reporters were allowed to visit Tibet only for three days in March and then only in a group under supervision. By the official count, one thousand Tibetans were detained in Lhasa alone, and the punishment of those deemed guilty of offenses is expected to be ferocious—to be handled according to the principles of “quick approval, quick arrest, quick trial, quick execution” (kuai pi, kuai zhua, kuai shen, kuai sha),2 according to Zhang Qingli, the current Party secretary of the Tibet Autonomous Region.

  1. 1

    This is not true of the distinguished Chinese intellectual Wang Lixiong, until recently under house arrest in Beijing, and surely the most informed of all Chinese writers on Tibet. Wang, who is one of the signers of the letter concerning the situation in Tibet that appeared in the May 15 issue of The New York Review, wrote in 1998:

    Tibet is more prosperous now than ever before in its history. However, this has not gained the PRC the allegiance of the Tibetans, more and more of whom have become attached to the Dalai Lama…. It would be wrong to regard the present situation as more stable than in 1987 [when protests first occurred in Lhasa]. At that time, it was mainly monks and disoriented youth who led the riots. Nowadays, opposition lurks among cadres, intellectuals, state employees. In the words of one retired official: “The current stabilization is only on the surface. One day people will riot in much greater numbers than in the late eighties.”

  2. 2

    The word sha means “to kill,” but may not be meant literally in the majority of cases. As of May 1, a Chinese court in Tibet had sentenced to prison thirty people accused of involvement in unrest in the Lhasa area, among them eight who were given sentences of fifteen years or more.

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