Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tibetan areas closed to foreigners

China is tightening its grip on Tibetan areas in the western part of the country by banning foreigners from the region ahead of the politically sensitive 50th anniversary of a failed Tibetan uprising.
Large swathes of Gansu, Sichuan and Qinghai provinces — home to large ethnic Tibetan communities — are now off limits to foreign travelers, local officials confirmed Thursday.
Last year, protests to mark the anniversary spun out of control, with deadly riots breaking out in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.
An official at the tourism office of northwestern Gansu province's Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, home to a major monastery and large Tibetan communities, said the region was closed to foreigners and would not be open until late March. The official, who did not identify himself as is customary in China, did not say when the restrictions were put in place.
In Sichuan province, many areas open just two weeks ago are now closed to foreign tourists until April, according to officials at the Ganzi prefecture tourist bureau. Only three counties in that prefecture will remain open to foreigners. Qinghai province's tourism bureau also said that many areas remain closed to foreigners.
The travel restrictions reflect Beijing's concerns about potential unrest as the 50th anniversary of the failed Tibetan uprising approaches on March 10. The Dalai Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader, was forced to flee into exile in India after the rebellion was crushed.
The Chinese government says 22 people died in last year's rioting, but Tibetan advocates say many times that number were killed in the protests and subsequent military crackdown.
Sympathy protests quickly spread outside Tibet to the neighboring provinces of Gansu, Sichuan, and Qinghai. The wave of demonstrations were among the largest anti-government protests among Tibetans in decades, but they were soon quelled by a huge military presence installed in the area.
China claims Tibet has always been part of its territory, while many Tibetans assert the Himalayan region was virtually independent for centuries.
Foreign reporters are not allowed into Tibet without special permission. Entry to Tibetan-populated areas, however, had been permitted in the past. But after last year's riots, many areas were closed off and remain inaccessible.
Chinese officials did lead a rare and tightly controlled tour of Tibet this week for some foreign reporters. Several organizations, including The Associated Press, were excluded.
On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu described the current situation in Tibet as "stable" but acknowledged that foreign reporters have had difficulty accessing the area.
"Since the March 14 incident, it's true that foreign journalists find it harder to go to Tibet. I think you all know the reasons. The government has taken some measures," she said. "The purpose is to safeguard stability in Tibet."
Several foreign journalists have reported being expelled from Tibetan-populated areas in China in the past week.
Wary of potential unrest, China last month launched a security sweep in Tibet, with state media saying at least 81 people were detained during raids on residential areas, Internet cafes, bars, rented rooms, hotels and guesthouses.
Though they normally focus on criminals, the "strike hard" campaigns have also targeted people suspected of anti-government activities in places like Tibet and the restive, largely Muslim region of Xinjiang.

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