Olympic flame burns ominously

Posted in Democracy , Religion and Politics , Other | 18-Mar-08 | Author: Situ Feng and John Ng| Source: Asia Times

Tibet's Governor Champa Phuntsok speaks during a press conference in Beijing Monday, March 17, 2008.
HONG KONG - In fear that more violent riots will disrupt the Olympic torch relay - the highly symbolic event of the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in August - China will step up vigilance and security to ensure the relay passes through the Himalayan region smoothly in June.

The violence that broke out in the Tibet Autonomous Region last week comes just two months before the Olympic celebrations kick off with the arrival of the Olympic torch in Lhasa, capital of Tibet.

The anti-Chinese government riots claimed at least 16 deaths, but a change of the torch's relay route is not under consideration at this stage, and authorities will strengthen security to ensure the relay passes through Tibet smoothly, a source close to the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing told Asia Times Online.

"There are reasons to believe the recent riots are part of a plan aimed at jeopardizing the torch relay to humiliate the Beijing Olympics. Hence, supporters of the Dalai Lama [spiritual leader and temporal head of the Tibetan government in exile in India] are likely to stage more violent riots. We'll step up our vigilance and security in the runup to the torch relay," said the source, who declined to be named.

And dashing international hopes that Beijing might display leniency towards the rioters and even seek dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Chinese officials have threatened tough measures against detractors.

"We will deal harshly with these criminals in accordance with the law," Champa Phuntsok, chairman of the Tibetan government, told reporters in Beijing. "Beating, smashing, looting and burning ... we absolutely condemn this sort of behavior. This plot is doomed to failure," said Phuntsok, speaking on the sidelines of the ongoing annual session of the National People's Congress, China's Parliament.

Sun Weide, a spokesman for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympics Games (BOCOG), said in a statement on Saturday that preparations for the torch relay in Tibet, including a planned ascent of Mount Qomolangma (Mount Everest) "have been progressing very smoothly and according to schedule".

Sun said the organizers opposed the linking of any political campaigns to the Olympics in August, amid renewed calls to boycott the Games after last week's crackdown on Tibetans protesting against Chinese rule, which some international media have compared to the June 4 bloody Tiananmen crackdown in 1989.

"BOCOG opposes any attempt to politicize the Olympic Games because that runs counter to the very spirit of the Olympic Games," he said.

According to the torch relay route announced by BOCOG on its website, the Olympic torch will arrive in Tibet's Shannan Diqu on June 19, from neighboring Sichuan province, and pass through Lhasa on June 20-21.

Last week's riots in Lhasa started on Monday when more than 300 Tibetan monks took to the streets to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising by supporters of the Dalai Lama against Chinese rule, chanting "Independence for Tibet". In a crackdown, authorities detained about 60 monks.

On that day, the Dalai Lama, speaking to supporters in Dharamsala, India, the seat of his government in exile, said: "During the past few years, Tibet has witnessed increased repression and brutality." He said China has committed "unimaginable and gross violations of human rights" and denied Tibetans their "religious freedom".

The next day, more Tibetan monks demonstrated, demanding the release of the arrested monks. People's Armed Police (PAP) troops fired tear gas to disperse the protesters.

On Friday, the protesters began to clash with police. According to witnesses, the unrest started at about 1 pm when several people clashed with and stoned local police near Ramogia Monastery in downtown Lhasa.

China Central Television (CCTV) aired lengthy footage in its 7 pm news on Saturday, showing rioters setting fire to police and civilian vehicles, chasing passers-by, smashing shops, including a branch of the Bank of China. Xinhua's Lhasa branch was also seen on fire.

Thousands of anti-riot police were deployed to control the situation and Hong Kong tourists said armored vehicles were seen on the streets and they were advised to stay in their hotels.

At least 16 people were killed in the riots, the Tibet regional government said, through Xinhua, on Saturday morning. "The victims are all innocent civilians, and they have been burnt to death," said an official. The victims included two hotel employees and two shop owners, said the unnamed official. Dozens were injured, including two PAP soldiers.

But Tibet's government-in-exile in Dharamsala said about 80 people had been confirmed killed.

Xinhua said armed police in Lhasa rescued more than 580 people, including three Japanese tourists, from banks, supermarkets, schools and hospitals that were set alight. More than 160 fires, including 40 major blazes, were reported, it said.

But neither Xinhua nor CCTV said how the riots were suppressed. The CCTV footage only showed policemen armed with anti-riot equipment patrolling on streets or helping civilians. Nor did the reports say how many people had been detained.

A Tibetan government official said there was enough evidence to prove that the sabotage in Lhasa was "organized, premeditated and masterminded" by the "Dalai clique".

At a televised press conference in Dharamsala on Sunday, the Dalai Lama dismissed the charges, calling for an international investigation into China's crackdown. But the Tibetan spiritual leader reiterated that China deserved to be a host of the Games, though adding that Beijing needed to be "reminded to be a good host of the Olympic Games".

Law enforcement authorities in Tibet issued a notice on Saturday, urging lawbreakers to stop their violent activities and offered leniency to those who surrendered. The notice demanded the lawbreakers turn themselves in by Monday midnight, and promised that mitigation and leniency would be given to those who surrendered.

Protests by Tibetans were also reported over the weekend. In Xiahe city in the northwest province of Gansu, local Tibetan monks held a smaller protest on Friday, but the confrontation escalated on Saturday afternoon. Thousands of monks and other Tibetans clashed with riot police. But on Sunday, Gansu governor Xu Shousheng, while attending the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, said "some small-scale turmoils occurred. But the situation has been brought under control."

In some Tibetan-inhabited areas in Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, scattered protests were also reported at the weekend.

Beijing has mobilized officially favored religious figures to denounce the riots and discredit international calls for a lenient response. The 11th Panchen Lama, the second-highest-ranking monk in the complex Tibetan hierarchy, issued a statement on Sunday in which he "resolutely supported the party and the government efforts to ensure the safety and stability of Lhasa", according to the official news agency Xinhua.

"We resolutely oppose all activities to split the country and undermine ethnic unity. We strongly condemn the crime of a tiny number of people to hurt the lives and properties of the people," the Panchen said from Lhasa.

Gyaincain Norbu is the Panchen Lama recognized by Beijing, but not by the Dalai Lama and his followers in exile. The six-year-old Tibetan boy, Gendun Choekyi Nyima, chosen by Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, to take the title of Panchen Lama, disappeared soon after the choice was made public in 1959 and has not been heard of since.

The exiled community has called the boy the "youngest political prisoner in the world". His fate exemplifies the rights denied to Tibetans after the Chinese communist takeover in 1950.

Beijing has put on top priority the need to hold successful Games, seeing it as a matter of national pride. But the riots in Tibet and the attempted hijack of a passenger airplane by a Uyghur girl have sparked off concerns with security and safety.

"Authorities have prepared for possible troubles created by pro-independence elements in Xinjiang and Tibet ahead and during the Beijing Olympics. However, the violence in Lhasa is the worst in the past two decades. It serves as a warning to the authorities," a sociology researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) said.

It is natural for the Tibetan and Xinjiang independence movements to increase their activities around the Olympics as this attracts international attention. "It would not by a surprise to see more attempts to jeopardize the Beijing Olympics," the source close to the Ministry of Public Security said.

While Beijing could step up security to prevent similar riots from happening, it must carefully seek a balance between law enforcement and human rights, since "now everything is under international spotlight" because of the Olympics, the CASS researcher said.

With the start of the Olympics just 140-plus days away, China's crackdown in Lhasa has left many in the Olympic movement fearing that the Games could now be hit by a series of international boycotts.

Following movie director Steven Spielberg's decision last month to pull out as an artistic adviser to the Olympic opening ceremony over China's support for Sudan, Hollywood actor and Tibet activist Richard Gere on Saturday called for a boycott of the Games if China "does not act in the proper way" in handling protests in Tibet.

But European leaders on Saturday dismissed talk of a boycott. International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge also poured cold water on Saturday on calls for a boycott, saying it would only hurt the athletes.

"We believe that the boycott doesn't solve anything," Rogge told reporters on a tour of the Caribbean. "On the contrary, it is penalizing innocent athletes and it is stopping the organization from something that definitely is worthwhile organizing." But he declined to say whether the committee would change its stance if violence continued or more people were killed.

Highly troublesome for Chinese leaders is the fact that a brutal outcome of the Tibetan protests may tip the scales on an upcoming controversial referendum and presidential vote in Taiwan - which China regards as a renegade province.

On March 22, voters on the island, which has been ruled separately from China for as long as Tibet has been under China's administration, are to cast ballots to decide whether or not to back the ruling, pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party in its bid to apply for United Nations membership.

While polls suggest that Taiwanese voters favor the Nationalist Party of Kuomintang, which supports a pro-unification course with China, any violent onslaught in Tibet may still swing the vote in the opposite direction.

Mindful of the international and domestic risks involved in a harsh crackdown on Tibetan monks and civilians, Chinese leaders have responded with both force and propaganda, hoping to contain the unrest and influence international opinion.

From the 1930s onwards, while seeking popular support in its civil war against the Kuomintang, the Communist Party repeatedly promised minorities the right to national self-determination, which included the freedom of self government and independent religious institutions. But the communists reneged on these promises after coming to power and within a few years it became treason for minorities to ask for independence.

When in 1959 Tibetans rebelled against the expropriation of their property, the closure of monasteries and China's misguided agriculture, that led to a massive famine, Beijing ordered a military intervention that forced the Dalai Lama to flee to India.

Since then, the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala has consistently pressed its demands not for full independence but for a high level of autonomy with Beijing. The Dalai Lama, winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, has toured world capitals trying to promote the Tibetan cause and get Chinese leaders to negotiate.

For a brief period in the mid-1980s when liberal party leader Hu Yaobang and his successor Zhao Ziyang were in power, Beijing and Dharamsala were still preparing to negotiate over Tibet's future.

But the process came to a halt when hardliners toppled Hu Yaobang. And Zhao Ziyang was purged for his sympathetic stance toward the student demonstrators in the Tiananmen Square protests.

Fresh riots broke out in Lhasa in 1989, which brought the imposition of martial law and an abrupt end to talks with the Dalai Lama. The Tibetan party secretary who oversaw the harsh crackdown in 1989 was Hu Jintao, now China's president and party chief.

Now events have come back to haunt him.

Situ Feng is a freelance writer from mainland China. John Ng is a freelance journalist based in Hong Kong.

(Additional reporting by Antoaneta Bezlova of Inter Press Service.)