- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 14, 2009

CHENGDU, CHINA (AP) - By most accounts, it started as a Buddhist prayer ceremony, attended by monks and devoted Tibetans. It ended with police firing into a crowd of enraged protesters, and the death toll still unconfirmed.

A year after sometimes violent protests erupted in the small county seat of Aba and across Tibetan communities in the most sustained uprising against Chinese rule in decades, much remains unknown. A form of martial law and an information blockade imposed by China has stopped all but a trickle of accounts on how the protests were suppressed, while leaving some Tibetans more resentful of Chinese rule.

“Everywhere military, troops,” said a Tibetan man from Aba who gave a rare description of shootings there last year and asked that his name not be used for fear of government retaliation. “It’s very hard. Tibetan people are very sad now.”

Saturday marked the first anniversary of the triggering event for last year’s violence _ an anti-Chinese riot in Lhasa, the Tibet region’s capital, that left at least 22 dead, ignited protests in three neighboring provinces and ended with Beijing flooding the region with troops.

The anniversary passed Saturday without apparent protests, as paramilitary and plainclothes police blanketed Lhasa with patrols and checkpoints. Police with rifles or batons marched around the Jokhang Temple, Tibet’s holiest Buddhist temple. Officers demanded to see people’s identification.

Hotel clerks and restaurant workers in Aba and other communities that saw protests last year described similar security arrangements. Independent confirmation is virtually impossible because most areas have been shut off to foreign visitors and journalists for much of the past year.

Police in the overwhelmingly Chinese provincial capital of Chengdu blocked traffic into the city’s Tibetan neighborhood, and plainclothes police tailed foreign reporters.

Beijing has said 22 people, mostly Chinese civilians, died in last year’s rioting in Lhasa and its suburbs, and blamed the revered but exiled leader of Tibetans, the Dalai Lama, and his followers for the “beating, smashing, looting and burning incidents.” It has acknowledged deaths in clashes elsewhere, but never provided a total. The Tibetan government-in-exile in India says 220 Tibetans died and nearly 7,000 were detained.

The Chinese government’s lack of information on the protests is “disturbing,” said a report released this week by the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

In a rare firsthand account, the Tibetan man from Aba, in remote northern Sichuan province, described how the prayer ceremony at the Kirti monastery on March 16 last year turned into a demonstration which stopped when police fired into the crowd.

He said he saw military trucks parked on street corners and armed troops watching, as believers arrived at Kirti to join about 2,000 monks. Tensions rose.

After one monk stood up and began chanting and marching toward town, others followed, shouting for Tibetan independence and holding pictures of the Dalai Lama, he said in a recent interview. Laypeople joined in, some looting and setting a nearby police station and police vehicles on fire.

Authorities fired tear gas and bullets, and bodies _ including girl who was about 16 or 17 years old _ crumpled on the street, he said.

“I saw it. The army just started shooting with machine guns and two people at the spot just fell down,” the man said. He said he saw “seven dead bodies with my own eyes.” An exile group last year posted on the Internet pictures of the bodies taken by cell phones, and the witnesses account conforms to other details that Aba residents have managed to pass to exiled monks in India.

A man who answered the telephone at the Aba police department on Friday said “no such thing happened to my knowledge.”

“Right now, no one can go near the monasteries” in the area, said the officer, who refused to give his name. “There is heavy security surrounding them.”

The Communist Party secretary of China’s Tibetan government defended the heavy troop presence as necessary to quell the continuing separatist threat.

The armed forces “should thoroughly foil the intrigues and plots of the Dalai clique that attempt to split the motherland and make Tibet unstable,” the official Tibet Daily’s Web site on Saturday quoted party secretary Zhang Qingli as saying.

March is often a volatile period in Tibet, as it marks the anniversary of the unsuccessful revolt against China that caused the Dalai Lama to flee in 1959.

But last year, Lhasa’s security forces were seemingly overwhelmed by mobs of Tibetans.

“There was a failure of either police intelligence that the monks there were planning a protest, or a failure of the quick redeployment of sufficient numbers of police from the outskirts of the city to the protests area,” said Scot Tanner, a specialist on Chinese security issues at CNA, a think tank outside Washington. “Or, more likely, both.”

But Xu Zhongcheng, a professor at the Shandong Police Academy, said, “No one imagined the perpetrators could be violent to such an extreme degree. In China, the chances of such occurrences are very small. … But once the violence happened, the police had no choice but to take resolute measures, otherwise the losses might have been bigger.”

In the year since, police patrols are part of daily life for many Tibetans. “Patriotic” re-education, in which monks are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, has been increased, and surveillance cameras have been installed at monasteries.

When asked by a reporter Friday whether the massive security pointed to failings in Beijing’s policies last year, Premier Wen Jiabao said: “Tibet’s continuous progress (has) proven the policies we have adopted are right.”

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