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Police keep tight lid on Tibet after protests

The region sees its biggest demonstrations in 20 years.

By a contributor / March 14, 2008

Enlightenment: Monks at Sera monastery, outside Lhasa, debated Buddhist doctrine using martial arts methods this week.



On most nights, Barkhor Square is full of ancient-looking pilgrims on a Buddhist kora around Jokhand temple, a 1,400-year old World Heritage Site.

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But last Tuesday around 9 p.m., it was unusually quiet when about 30 police officers wearing riot helmets sped into the cobblestone streets in vehicles resembling golf buggies. In front of a few foreign tourists, the police grabbed two young men in street clothes, put them in headlocks, and hauled them away to a nearby police station.

The arrests were the fallout from the largest public protests against Chinese rule for nearly 20 years, according to Tibet experts. The protests came on the 49th anniversary of the failed 1959 uprising against China, which has long claimed dominion over Tibet, and which China has tried to modernize in its own way.

US-supported Radio Free Asia reported the arrest of more than 50 monks on Monday and said that police used tear gas to disperse hundred of monks outside Sera monastery on Tuesday.

While a Foreign Ministry spokesman in Beijing acknowledged arrests on Monday as necessary to prevent disorder, details remained sketchy about the number of arrests and the condition of detainees.

The protests on Monday and Tuesday surprised many China-watchers, who assumed that the Qinghai-Tibetan railway – which connects Beijing to Lhasa in 48 hours over a 4,500-meter-high plateau – was helping to integrate Tibet with China. In the summer, thousands of Chinese flock into Lhasa, staying in dozens of new hotels and paying extra on the black market for scarce tickets into Potala Palace, perhaps the most beautiful structure in Asia and the former residence of the Dalai Lama, now exiled in India.

In Barkhor Square, police officers shooed the group of foreign tourists out of the square and back to their hotels. The officers were smiling, as if this was for the foreigners' safety. Clearly, something was going on in the latest hot spot of Asian tourism.

A young European backpacker, gasping for breath in Lhasa's 3,650-meter altitude, came running into a hotel looking for an Internet connection.

"There's a big protest going on in the road to Sera monastery," he said. "There are hundreds of people in the street, howling like wolves. They look like local people and they're angry because the police have arrested some monks. I didn't see them fighting with police. It didn't look violent. The police chased some of them into small alleys to arrest them."