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Olympic flame reaches Lhasa but Tibetans are kept in dark

Olympic flame reaches Lhasa but Tibetans are kept in dark

Author: Jane Macartney, China Correspondent
Publication: The Times
Date: June 23, 2008
URL: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/sport/olympics/article4193065.ece

Introduction: Only a hand-picked few were allowed out to watch the torch as it was carried from the summer palace of the Dalai Lama

Armed troops patrol the streets of Lhasa and Tibetan monks and Buddhist pilgrims have virtually disappeared from the sacred prayer path that surrounds Tibet's holiest temple in the heart of the capital. There is no sign that China is ready yet to loosen the security clampdown imposed after Tibetans rioted in the streets more than three months ago.

Instead, the army patrols and identity checks were stepped up last week as the Himalayan city prepared for its brief moment as host of the Olympic torch on its relay through China. The passage of the flame, curtailed from three days to only one, went off without incident and virtually without an audience at the weekend.

The authorities ordered everyone in the city, even tourists, to stay inside with their windows closed until midday on Saturday when the torch relay ended. Thousands of troops were out in force, standing a mere five metres apart on many roads, to ensure that the curfew was obeyed.

Only a hand-picked few were allowed out to watch the torch as it was carried from the summer palace of the Dalai Lama to the towering crimson and white Potala Palace that was his winter home until he fled into exile during an abortive anti-Chinese uprising in 1959.

One Han Chinese resident was determined not to let the restrictions hamper his enjoyment of a glimpse of the Olympic torch in Lhasa. "Reliable Communist Party members were chosen long ago as the people who would attend the ceremony in Potala Square," he said.

He could not even watch on television as the torch was relayed between 156 runners, including 75 ethnic Tibetans. Only the start and finish of the relay were broadcast, in stark contrast to the usual coverage by China's sports channel, which has shown each stage of the relay live on television.

Lhasa residents said that the level of security in the streets and the absence of an audience along the route made it too embarrassing to show the event. Instead, viewers were treated to programmes about Tibet's ancient temples until the torch had completed its journey safely.

The grand finale at the foot of the Potala Palace that has been home to most of Tibet's 14 Dalai Lamas was an opportunity for the region's Communist Party boss to warn Tibetans of the futility of any attempts to seek independence.

Zhang Qingli said at the end of the two-hour relay: "Tibet's sky will never change and the red flag with five stars will forever flutter high above it. We will certainly be able to totally smash the splittist schemes of the Dalai Lama clique."

No sooner had the curfew for the torch ended than the troops pulled out, to be replaced by paramilitary police, and Lhasa residents poured on to the streets.

Many made their way to the Potala Square to see the cauldron where the main Olympic torch was reunited with a separate flame that was carried by Han Chinese and Tibetan climbers to the peak of Everest last month.

One Tibetan man strolled with his grandson, who wanted to see the fun. He said: "I like the Olympic Games and I'm glad the torch has come to Lhasa. I like the Han people because they open small hotels and restaurants here and treat us in a polite way."

However, as soon as the sensitive issue of the Dalai Lama was mentioned he walked quietly away.

China is nervous that it has yet to reassert full control. The deadly anti-Chinese riots in Lhasa on March 14 provoked similar outbursts of anger across swaths of western China with large Tibetan populations.

Amnesty International says that 1,000 people are still in detention and have yet to be charged.

A court in Lhasa in April sentenced 30 people, including six monks, to lengthy prison terms for their part in the riots in which at least 18 people were killed.

Many more are expected to go on trial and some will face the death penalty if they are convicted of murder.

In Sichuan province about 70,000 troops have been deployed in Tibetan towns and villages to prevent fresh outbreaks of unrest.

All foreigners are banned from these areas. However, visitors who returned within the last few days described scenes of virtual siege in many villages. Troops manning machineguns have been deployed on the fringes of most communities. Chicanes have been thrown up to force vehicles to slow down for checks and rolls of anti-tyre spikes are ready to be thrown down across roads in case of trouble.

One Chinese visitor said: "It looks like Iraq. It's as if there's a war." Wanted posters, usually photographs of unidentified Tibetans who took part in the riots or demonstrations, have been issued by police in each county and pasted on walls in towns as the authorities try to track down those involved.

In Sichuan all vehicles are checked by troops, paramilitary police or civilian police.

On buses, ethnic Tibetans are required to show their identity cards while Han Chinese are allowed to pass without checks.

Around Lhasa the scrutiny is even more intense. Any ethnic Tibetan lacking an official pass from his local government to enter the Tibetan capital is turned back. Again, Han Chinese are rarely affected.

All pictures of the Dalai Lama are banned. Anyone found in possession of a photograph of Tibet's revered god-king faces a fine of 1,000 yuan (£70) - no small sum in a country where the average income is about £1,300 a year.

But such is the depth of feeling for the Dalai Lama that lockets containing his photograph are still on sale - at least in Sichuan. One locket costs about five yuan (35p).

Official versions

China says that rioters in Lhasa killed 19 people in early March. Tibetan exiles say police opened fire on the demonstrators, killing dozens

Amnesty International says that the Chinese authorities may be holding as many as 1,000 Tibetans in detention without charge

China blames what it calls the Dalai Lama clique for orchestrating the violence. Beijing has held seven rounds of talks with the Dalai Lama's representatives, the most recent in May, but no progress has been made and no date has been agreed for an eighth meeting

The Dalai Lama, the 14th, fled Tibet in 1959 during an abortive uprising, when some 80,000 Tibetans were killed

A Lhasa court has jailed 30 people, including six monks, for their part in the March 14 riot. Three were sentenced to life

Police in Lhasa have issued a most-wanted list for 170 people and they say they have arrested at least 83 of them

Source: Times Archive

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