- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 15, 2008

The United States led an international chorus yesterday urging China to show restraint after two protesters were reportedly killed in Tibet in the largest anti-government demonstrations in nearly two decades.

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the remote region’s Buddhist natives, dismissed as “baseless” charges by Beijing that he was behind the violence that has erupted after three days of demonstrations marking the 49th anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule.

The White House, the European Union and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour all pushed China to ease the crackdown in Tibet, amid reports of Chinese police firing on crowds of protesters who were burning cars and shops in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said Beijing needs to respect Tibetan culture and multi-ethnicity in its society, according to the Associated Press. “We regret the tensions between the ethnic groups and Beijing,” he said, adding that President Bush has said consistently that Beijing needs to have a dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

“Nobody benefits from violence,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said. “But we believe that it is very important that in responding to these protests that the Chinese government turn away from the use of force or violence in responding to the protests.”

Mr. McCormack said U.S. Ambassador to China Clark Randt, in a previously scheduled meeting with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui, pressed Beijing to act with restraint and to conduct talks with the Dalai Lama, who has lived in exile in India since 1959.

Details from Lhasa were sketchy, with some reports putting the number of those killed as high as 13. The U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia quoted witnesses yesterday who reported seeing two bodies on the streets of the capital, after police reportedly fired live ammunition into crowds of protesters.

However, the chairman of the Tibet government, Qiangba Puncog, told reporters on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary session protesters “no gunshots” were fired at the protesters, according to Xinhua news agency.

He said the protesters will be dealt with “firmly, according to law,” according to Agence France-Presse.

Eyewitness reports said the streets of Lhasa were filled with tear gas and bonfires, as crowds threw rocks at lines of riot police. Photos on the Internet showed protesters burning Chinese flags.

Tensions have spiked in Tibet in recent years with the heavy influx of ethnic Chinese into the region, attracted by government policies and by the booming economy. The Xinhua news agency said protesters targeted small shops and businesses owned by Chinese merchants.

The Dalai Lama called the protests a “manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people,” and urged both sides to avoid violence, according to the AP. In Dharamsala, India, the site of Tibet’s government-in-exile, he urged China’s leadership to “stop using force and address the long-simmering resentment of the Tibetan people through dialogue with the Tibetan people.”

The International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) blamed Beijing for the violence. The private human rights group accused China of suppressing Tibet’s religion and culture, reneging on promises for more local political control and marginalizing Tibetans by encouraging Chinese to relocate to the region.

ICT officials said they had received reports that Chinese security forces had sealed off and surrounded three major monasteries in and around Lhasa. But protests have steadily grown since Monday and demonstrators demanded the release of Buddhist monks detained by Chinese officials last fall.

The London-based Free Tibet Campaign said yesterday’s clashes came when some 400 protesters confronted nearly 1,000 police at a market near a major Buddhist temple in Lhasa.

Pro-Tibet demonstrations also were reported in India, Nepal, and at United Nations headquarters in New York.

The new violence is “a tragic consequence of decades of Chinese misrule in Tibet,” said ICT President John Ackerly.

In Dharamsala, a spokesman for the Dalai Lama strongly denied Chinese charges that the Buddhist religious leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate had instigated the violence.

“This is absolutely baseless and his holiness has made his stand very clear,” spokesman Chhime Chhoekyapa told Reuters news agency. “This is nothing new. China has been saying this so many times.”

The clashes come at an awkward time for China’s communist leaders, who are busy preparing for this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing, meant to showcase the country’s economic and social progress.

European Union leaders appealed to China to show restraint in Tibet, but the criticism of Beijing’s response to the demonstrations did not go so far as to threaten a boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the AP reported.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said: “As far as the Olympic Games are concerned, I intend to be there.”

China’s leaders have repeatedly proven willing to endure international criticism to retain their grip on Tibet.

The state news service yesterday offered only brief details of the unrest in Lhasa and said the provincial government was “taking effective measures to properly handle the incident.”

Tibet’s provincial government denounced the clashes as “an act of sabotage” that were “organized, premeditated and masterminded by the [Dalai Lama] clique.”

Mr. McCormack said U.S. policy remained firm in not linking American participation in the Olympic Games to China’s human rights record.

But French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner raised the possibility of a link between the situation in Tibet and the success of the games, even if France does not support a boycott now.

“France can draw attention to the link between the Olympic Games and this Tibetan aspiration, which China has to take into account,” he told reporters in Paris.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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