Friday, June 20, 2008

Tibet capital under lockdown for Olympic torch


LHASA — Three months after the Tibetan uprising, the ancient Buddhist quarter of Lhasa is sullen and subdued, weighed down by a heavy Chinese security presence on every corner.

Thousands of Chinese police and paramilitary troops have descended on the Tibetan capital in a massive lockdown as Beijing prepares to send the Olympic flame on a brief dash through the city this morning.

Lhasa's historic heart, around the sacred Jokhang temple, was swarming with paramilitary officers and regular police yesterday. At least two paramilitary men, in camouflage uniforms, were posted at every alley and street corner in the old town, while the streets were further monitored by security cameras and undercover agents.

A walk through the old town — the first time a Canadian journalist has been allowed into Lhasa since the uprising began — found not a single Tibetan monk visible in the Buddhist quarter.

A few pilgrims were paying their respects at the Jokhang Temple, the holiest Tibetan temple, but they were vastly outnumbered by the paramilitary troops who closely watched the streets. As many as 12,000 police and paramilitary have been mobilized to maintain an iron grip on Lhasa this month, human rights activists say.

Armed police were lined along the highway from Lhasa's airport yesterday, guarding all the key intersections and setting up traffic checkpoints. A truck filled with riot police, carrying shields, was heading into the centre of the city. Units of paramilitary troops were marching through the city, while dozens of police vehicles were stationed on major streets.

Propaganda slogans — including "Great Ethnic Unity" and "Bless the Motherland, Joyfully Greet the Olympics" — were displayed on signboards across the city. Steel fences were being erected along the torch route to keep the spectators back.

In a further sign of how the Tibetans are losing control of their capital, Chinese authorities revealed last night that less than half of the torch bearers today would be Tibetan. There will be 75 Tibetans and 77 Han Chinese among the 156 torch carriers, the officials said.

Flag-waving spectators who were rehearsing for the torch event yesterday were overwhelmingly Han Chinese too.

Foreign tourists and journalists are still prohibited from visiting Tibet because it is deemed "unsafe" — despite the massive police presence. Only a small handful of foreign journalists have been permitted to enter for short visits, and they are pressured to follow a formal program with official escorts.

The torch relay, originally scheduled for a three-day jaunt across Tibet, was delayed and finally shortened to a brief three-hour event today. The exact date of the Lhasa relay was kept secret until three days before the event.

China gave a preview of its security measures this week when it sent the torch through Xinjiang, the restive Muslim region in the far west of China. Most ordinary people were banned from the streets when the torch passed by. Residents along the route were ordered to close their windows and stay away from balconies and bridges overlooking the route. Most of the hand-picked spectators were Han Chinese, and foreign journalists were not permitted to talk to them or even approach them.

Similar tactics were used when the torch passed through a Tibetan region of Yunnan last week. Buddhist monks were ordered to remain inside their monasteries as the torch was carried through the streets.

In Lhasa, the Chinese state-controlled news agency Xinhua is predicting that the Olympic flame will be greeted "with flowers and distinctive folk dances" when it is paraded through the ancient city today.

The agency quoted one Tibetan folk dancer who proclaimed that "everybody is active and ardent" in their dance rehearsals for the torch relay.

But a different picture emerges from human rights activists who have talked to independent sources in Tibet. Amnesty International estimates that more than 1,000 people were detained in China's crackdown on the Tibetan protests that began on March 10. Some were arrested for violent riots against Han Chinese, but many were detained merely for peacefully expressing their views, and hundreds of them are still languishing in appalling conditions in Chinese prisons, Amnesty says. Some of the detainees have been beaten or deprived of food and health care, it says.

Communications are another target of the crackdown. Police and security forces have confiscated cellphones and computers in hundreds of raids on Tibetan monasteries and private homes in recent weeks, preventing thousands of Tibetans from communicating with the outside world, Amnesty said in a report this week.

"The complete lockdown in Tibet is allowing human rights abuses such as arbitrary detentions, ill treatment and severe censorship to go unreported and unpunished," said a statement by Sam Zarifi, Asia-Pacific director at Amnesty.

OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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