Chaos in Tibet capital as protests spread
BEIJING - Protesters in Tibet's capital Lhasa burnt shops and vehicles and yelled for independence on Friday as the region was hit by its biggest protests for nearly two decades, testing China's grip months before the Olympics.
Peaceful street marches by Tibetan Buddhist monks over previous days gave way to bigger scenes of violence and resentment in the remote, mountainous region.
"Now it's very chaotic outside," an ethnic Tibetan resident said by telephone. "People have been burning cars and motorbikes and buses. There is smoke everywhere and they have been throwing rocks and breaking windows. We're scared."
Another ethnic Tibetan resident said there were "protests everywhere." "It's no longer just the monks. Now they have been joined by lots of residents," the man said.
The eruption of anger comes despite China's repeated claims that the Tibetan people are grateful for improved lives and it threatens to stain preparations for the Beijing Olympics with fears of ethnic unrest.
Chinese rule in remote, Buddhist Tibet has become a focus for critics in the run-up to the August Games, with global marches this week to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising against Communist rule spilling into Tibet itself.
Those marches apparently emboldened Buddhist monks to march down Lhasa's streets, defying a heavy police presence and reports of lockdowns on several monasteries, sources with knowledge of the region said.
On Friday, 300 to 400 residents and monks demonstrated in Lhasa, a source cited a witness as saying, capping a week of daily protests led by the Buddhist clergy that has echoes of anti-government protests that rocked neighbor Myanmar last year.
"Some are angry and some are scared. The security forces are checking houses to see if any monks are hiding," said the source, who is in touch with Tibetan residents.
More than 10 monks had been arrested and tanks were patrolling the square near the Potala Palace, the source said, referring to one of the architectural wonders of the world once the winter residence of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Witnesses said a number of shops were set on fire and report from China's Xinhua news agency said the Tromsikhang Market in central Lhasa was also in flames.
Residents spoke of general chaos around the city, and one Tibetan man said Tibetans and minority Hui Muslim traders from other parts of China were fighting each other with rocks and knives.
A Han Chinese resident said the protests were being directed at the city's Chinese population. "The Han Chinese are really scared," the resident said. "We have been told not to go outside."
"It is very chaotic... There is lots of smoke and police around," said another Han Chinese man. An editor at the Chinese-language Lhasa Evening News said staff were staying inside.
The US Embassy said it had received reports from US citizens of gunfire in Lhasa and advised its citizens there to remain indoors.
Two residents reached by telephone referred to martial law.
But that could not be confirmed and China's State Council Information Office declined to comment, referring only to remarks made on Thursday by a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who said the protesters were "seeking to spark social turmoil."
The demonstrations in Lhasa earlier also spilled into at least one other ethnic Tibetan area of China.
Hundreds of monks from the Labrang monastery in the northwestern province of Gansu led a march through the town of Xiahe, the Free Tibet Campaign said, citing sources in Dharamsala, home to Tibet's government-in-exile.
The region has been periodically restive since Chinese troops invaded in 1950. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama staged a failed uprising against Chinese rule and fled into exile in India.
China imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989, the same year as the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed in Beijing, to quell anti-Chinese demonstrations, when President Hu Jintao was the Communist Party boss in the region.
This week's wave of protests began on Monday, when 500 monks from the Drepung monastery marched in Lhasa. That was followed by action from monks at the Lhasa-area Sera and Ganden monasteries. Security personnel fired tear gas on at least one of the demonstrations, reports said.
The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said authorities had sealed off all three monasteries.
The US-government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported monks from Sera were on a hunger strike, demanding withdrawal of Chinese paramilitary forces from the monastery and the release of monks detained earlier this week.
Two monks from Drepung were in critical condition after attempting suicide by slitting their wrists, RFA said.