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Fear lingers in Tibet two years after riots

 Reuters 02 July 2019

Outward normality has returned to the thin air of Tibet's capital Lhasa. But, more than two years after ethnic violence erupted there, residents still talk of fear and suspicion. (791 Words) - By Ben Blanchard


A pro-Tibet demonstrator holds up a banner that reads "Tibet Peace". Photo: REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

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Tourists, foreign and Chinese, mingle with Tibetans, browsing for ethnic jewellery and intricate Buddhist paintings. Child beggars hold up grubby hands asking for a few yuan. Old women prostrate themselves in front of Buddhist temples.

Armed soldiers and police patrol the streets, especially in Lhasa's old Tibetan quarter, in a reminder of Beijing's tight grip on the restive region.

"The fear is all around," said one nervous young businessman, his features weathered by the harsh climate and high altitude.

Though the military presence has been pulled back slightly since the months after the rioting, he said the city remained oppressive.

Military bases still ring Lhasa and long lines of army trucks rumble along narrow highways into the city of 600,000, predominantly Tibetan, though with a growing number of Han Chinese migrants.

"There are spies everywhere. Who knows who is listening to us," the businessman added. Like others, he asked for anonymity, fearing retribution for talking to a foreign reporter without permission.

Tibetans spoke of constant dread and suspicion, in whispered comments to Reuters during a rare government-organised visit to the region.

Tibet, often a friction point in relations with the West, has been largely closed to foreign media since the March 2008 violence, and access has never been easy.

The 2008 unrest in Lhasa, which then sparked waves of protests across Tibetan areas, came a few months before Beijing hosted the Olympic Games.

Peaceful protests led by monks gave way to the worst violence the region had seen in almost two decades, with rioters torching shops and turning on Han Chinese and Hui Muslims.

Han residents seemed largely to brush off the security. For some it has been a boon, with unexpected business ventures bought about by the flight of many Han after the riots.

A taxi driver from inland China said he came after the unrest as friends told him he could pick up a nearly new car for a song.

"I heard you could get a car for 3,000 yuan," he said. "I saw an opportunity and grabbed it."


Overseas groups critical of Chinese policies in Tibet say more than 200 people were killed in a crackdown following the riots of 2008. The official death toll is 19.

"I'm terrified to speak of these things," said a second Tibetan resident when asked about the rioting and its aftermath.

"If someone finds out I've talked about March 14 my whole family will suffer, and they're just innocents," he said, cautiously eyeing a passing policeman.

"Nobody believes the official death toll. There was too much violence. The things I saw, the burnt out shops, cars and buses. Many more people must have died," he added, his face wincing.

Beijing says it used minimal force and blames exiled Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama for instigating the violence, a charge he rejects.

Tibet's Buddhist clergy, revered by lay Tibetans, have been under pressure since the unrest, rights groups say.

Some were arrested. Others have been the target of "patriotic re-education" campaigns to try to change their perception of China.

One graduate of the programme, a young monk called Norgye, was presented to journalists for a brief interview this week.

A few weeks after the riots, Norgye, who like many Tibetans uses one name, was part of a small group of monks from Lhasa's Jokhang temple who interrupted another government-arranged trip for foreign reporters, shouting that they had no freedom.

Looking worried and keeping his eyes on the floor, he said he had not been mistreated after the outburst, but that he had undergone "education about the law".

"Through education, I realised that what I did was wrong and lawless," he said in his native Tibetan, translated by an official interpreter. "There is freedom of religion in Tibet."


Tibet's Communist-Party dominated administration says its polices are popular and bring development to a poor region, though it admits that a heavy security presence is still needed to ensure stability post-2008.

"All the people of Tibet, especially the Tibetans, can see that social stability is the best thing," Tibet's deputy Communist Party boss Hao Peng told reporters. "Only with stability can there be development."

In Lhasa's heavily Tibetan old quarter, one of the nexus points for the 2008 unrest, not everyone agrees.

"We are a people with no rights and no freedoms," said one monk, clad in his vermillion robes and out of earshot of the armed paramilitary forces who patrol the area.

"The Tibetans who work for the government here are bad people. They are working with the Han to suppress our culture and religion," he added in broken Mandarin, before slipping away to join a mass of Tibetan pilgrims circling the Jokhang temple.


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