Sunday, November 9, 2008

China cracks down in Tibet to avert rioting

China has intensified its military presence in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa amid fears Dalai Lama supporters plan to repeat bloody March rioting.

The Courier-Mail can reveal that increased numbers of soldiers and police are patrolling the streets of the capital. Military personnel armed with machineguns are conducting routine patrols around Lhasa's historic Barkhor district. Snipers are also positioned on rooftops and stairwells.During a four-day visit to the Buddhist kingdom, The Courier-Mail also witnessed monks being bundled into a police van close to Lhasa's historic Jokhang temple.

Pro-Tibet organisations say authorities are routinely jailing monks and nuns.Bai Ma Cai Wang, Vice-Governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region Government, also confirmed that 55 Tibetans had been sentenced to jail terms ranging from three years to life after the March riots.The riots flared after monks staged peaceful protests. Up to 200 were killed and more than 1300 Tibetans were arrested during the unrest, which was beamed around the world.Mr Bai Ma said the Beijing-backed Tibetan Government had "moderately adjusted" the military and police presence in recent days because of "separatist activities".

The revelations come just days after an eighth round of talks between the Dalai Lama's envoy and Beijing ended without progress.The Chinese authorities fear a militant uprising by Tibetan youth, who they say are seeking independence for their country.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is among a host of world leaders who have criticised China's human rights record in Tibet.But Mr Bai Ma said: "The Tibetan people enjoy full rights in terms of management of their own affairs."The senior Government figure was speaking on Tuesday during an hour-long meeting with an Australian delegation led by Queensland Liberal backbencher Michael Johnson and including two journalists.Mr Bai Ma also confirmed Tibet's economy had been seriously damaged by the March uprising. Tourism has been severely cut back, from about 4.5 million visitors in 2007 to just 400,000 this year.Mr Johnson - who is accused by Labor and Greens MPs of being a pro-Beijing sympathiser - said China should consider allowing the Dalai Lama to visit his homeland, which he fled in 1959."As a friend of China, I would say that some kind of reconciliation must take place between Beijing and the Dalai Lama," Mr Johnson told The Courier-Mail.

Lhasa was a place of beauty this week as a snow storm layered the mountains framing the spiritual hub with a thick coat of white powder.But there were also scenes straight out of a virtual police state.During the visit, The Courier-Mail saw dozens of snipers and soldiers patrolling the city's narrow laneways and religious squares.Squads of five or six, with machine and assault rifles draped menacingly, marched slowly along narrow lanes packed with vendors and Buddhist pilgrims.

The Courier-Mail was among the first foreign news outlets allowed into Tibet since the March uprising.While China has pumped a huge level of investment into Tibet, there is a strong perception of a country divided and fearful of itself.Few Tibetans speak English but several monks who did said there was a strong desire for the exiled Dalai Lama, who remains in the remote Indian city of Dharamsala, to return to his homeland.It is hard to extract information. Even the brave are wary of saying too much.Several monks said China had "bugged" some of the city's key tourist sites, such as the Potala Palace, to eavesdrop on potential troublemakers.

Despite the Dalai Lama denouncing the March violence - which the Chinese claim caused a direct economic loss of $70million - he is seen as a political agitator and foe.Chinese authorities say he orchestrated the March riots and was also instrumental in helping to disrupt the Olympic Torch Relay as it wound around the globe.There is no evidence to support this claim, but in the Land of the Snows, the truth is unfathomably hard to pin down.Despite the building of a modern rail service from China, Lhasa's streets are almost completely devoid of Western faces.

Every Chinese or Tibetan official The Courier-Mail spoke to, in Lhasa and Beijing, spoke derisively of the Dalai Lama. Mr Bai Ma even claims he remains a distant memory for many Tibetan Buddhists."The image of the Dalai Lama as spiritual leader in the Tibet people's minds has already gone away," he said.It is an extraordinary boast, but one impossible to verify. In economic terms, Tibet has made solid progress since it emerged from a centuries-old feudal system, during which the poor were forced to pay outrageous taxes to the privileged few.But the guns and soldiers on the streets of Lhasa shows at what cost.


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