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On China's 60th anniversary, Tibet wants quiet

Thousands are expected at a government-led rally in Lhasa as Chinese soldiers with tear gas patrol the streets in a bid to prevent a riot similar to the one in March.

By Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor / September 30, 2009

Lhasa, Tibet

Tibetans are hoping the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China will pass uneventfully, and Chinese police and military in Tibet are on heightened alert to make sure that there will not be a repeat of last year's deadly riots. While Thursday's celebrations will center on Beijing, with the country's largest-ever military parade, thousands are also expected to gather 2,500 miles away in Lhasa for a government-led rally in front of the Potala Palace, the exiled Dalai Lama's former home.

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Despite the government's investments in Tibet, including a recent multi-million dollar renovation of Potala Palace, Tibetans interviewed in the weeks leading up to the anniversary say China has done little to improve their lives and that they resent Beijing's restrictions on freedom and religion.

"On the outside it looks better, but on the inside it is not," a Tibetan shop owner in the Himalayan capital said recently, referring to infrastructure upgrades in the city. "They make some improvements, but still we are not free."

'Social order' responsibility of armed police

The Dalai Lama has said the Chinese Communist Party has transformed Tibet into a "hell on earth." This year, Tibet marked the 50th anniversary of its failed 1959 uprising against China, only to have the federal government in Beijing rename it "Serfs Emancipation Day."

Communist Party officials in Tibet have vowed that the October celebrations will be free of dissent, though nationwide festivities are expected to increase pressure on police to prevent protesters from speaking out.

In late August, the government passed the country's first law on the armed police, giving the 660,000-strong People's Armed Police Force statutory authority to respond to security emergencies and "take necessary measures to dispel large assemblies of people that compromise social order," the state-run news agency Xinhua announced.

"The armed police played a key role in handling the Lhasa riot last year and the riot in Xinjiang last month," Liu Xirong, vice-chairman of the National People's Congress (NPC) Law Committee, was quoted saying in the state-run China Daily. "Based on that experience, we'd better make clear their responsibility in similar incidents." As during previous periods of potential unrest, foreigners have reportedly been banned from traveling to Tibet from Sept. 22 through Oct. 8.

Soldiers on the rooftops

Camouflage-clad Chinese troops, armed with weapons loaded with tear gas and rubber bullets, stand guard at every entrance to Lhasa's old town, one of the few neighborhoods in central Lhasa still dominated by ethnic Tibetans.

While pilgrims circle the sacred Jokhang temple at the center of town, chanting prayers and bowing to the ancient structure, the round helmets of soldiers are visible on the surrounding rooftops.

Armored vehicles periodically roll along Lhasa's streets and groups of soldiers, wearing facemasks and wielding riot shields, patrol the sidewalks and alleys. They march in line and stop to demand that a tourist photographing them erase his pictures. Soldiers and police officers operate checkpoints along roads throughout the Tibet Autonomous Region, which covers most of the Tibetan plateau in what is today western China.