Violence Erupts Following Peaceful Protests in Tibet

A series of peaceful protests by Tibetan monks earlier this month erupted into violent clashes with Chinese security forces. Christian Science Monitor reporter Peter Ford and Robert Barnett, a lecturer in Modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University, weigh in on the conflict.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News.

A series of protest by Tibetan monks earlier this month erupted into violent clashes with Chinese security forces. It isn't clear how many have been killed or injured because access to the country by outsiders has been severely restricted. Earlier this week, the government in Beijing organized a tour by foreign reporters to the Tibetan capital, but the heavy police presence indicates a crackdown is still in effect.

Here to tell us more are Christian Science Monitor reporter Peter Ford. He's been covering the story from Beijing. And also with us, scholar Robert Barnett, he's a lecturer in modern Tibetan studies at Columbia University. Thank you both for joining us.

Professor ROBERT BARNETT (Modern Tibetan Studies, Columbia University): Thank you.

Mr. PETER FORD (Reporter, Christian Science Monitor): You're welcome.

MARTIN: Mr. Barnett, let's start with you. As I understand it, the protest started earlier this month when about 300 monks marched to commemorate the anniversary of a Tibetan uprising against the Chinese rule. This anniversary's been observed since 1959. So to our knowledge, what do we think sparked this kind of confrontation? These protests have happened before.

Prof. BARNETT: Well, there haven't been protests actually on the streets of this kind in Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, for about 10 years. So this was a very bold move. Probably, the monks felt that the Olympian dividend would mean that they wouldn't get shot. And indeed, the police were relatively restrained the first three or four days. But unfortunately on the fifth day, some police had an encounter, a confrontation, with another small groups of monks. Actually in the city rather than on the outskirts, and that confrontation was witnessed by lay people who then began to attack the police.

The police ran away. They were outnumbered, and then the crowd turned to attacking Chinese migrants. And by this time, actually already, protest had spread all the way across the Tibetan plateau, and we've seen about 40 demonstrations in rural areas and in cities. Many of them have been peaceful. None of them have attacked Chinese civilians except the one in Lhasa.

MARTIN: So just to your knowledge, Mr. Barnett, the idea that the monks are the ones sort of engaging in this violence against the Chinese security forces. To your knowledge, that that's not accurate? It's more that the monks' protests sparked these confrontations by lay people? Is that your understanding?

Prof. BARNETT: That's right. We see three very different kinds of protest. We see the Burma style, relatively peaceful marches by the monks, with very specific demands. You know, release former prisoners, and so on. And then we see this very - one incident in Lhasa, which is kind of ethnic revenge riot against Chinese migrants, and then these dozens of rural protests across the countryside where large groups of lay people have symbolically burnt down a police station and raised the Tibetan flag, the old national flag of Tibet.

And so these are very different kinds of protest. They seem to have a single theme about support for the Dalai Lama and obviously some kind of deep discontent about Chinese rule.

MARTIN: Peter, I mentioned that you've been covering this story from Beijing. I think the first people would want to know is, why are you in Beijing and not in Tibet? And secondly, does your understanding of the situation conform to Robert's?

Mr. FORD: Yes, well I'm in Beijing because I was in Tsinghua and Gantzu, which are heavily Tibetan areas of Western China, until the police made working impossible there. They were kicking out reporters as, and when they found them, over the three or four days that I was there. And since Tuesday of last week, basically it has been impossible to work in Tibetan areas because of the blanket police presence.

Journalists are very rarely allowed into Lhasa, although there was only one accredited western journalist in Lhasa when things broke out. Since then, as you said, a team of fairly carefully monitored journalists has been taken to Tibet, but that rather backfired today, because they were being taken by their government minders to the Jokhang Temple and were suddenly accosted by a group of 30 monks who shouted Tibet is not free! Tibet is not free! The Dalai Lama had nothing to do with the violence last week, which of course is what the Chinese government has been saying.

And generally, expressing themselves in a quite astonishing way because I have no doubt that they will pay very heavily for that outburst.

MARTIN: And when you say that, what do you mean? Do you mean that they will be imprisoned? Will they be physically tortured?

Mr. FORD: I think the chances of their not being jailed are pretty slim. One never knows exactly what happens, and as I say there are no journalists there except the ones currently on a government organized trip, and I don't think they will be told. But to stand up quite that bluntly, quite that directly, to the government, to tell journalists who are there that what they're being told by the Chinese minders is not true, that I don't think - obviously, it was the last thing that the Chinese government wanted. And I think it was probably the last thing that they expected because this was quite a remarkable outburst.

MARTIN: Peter, how do you interpret the way that Chinese authorities have reacted through this? It's been reported that initially their response was rather restrained to the initial demonstrations. And then, it was sort of reported that well, was this strategic? Because they were hoping that the violence would get out of hand so that they could then use this for propaganda purposes? And then to say, see these people are out of control. Or do you think that they were caught off guard? And I understand that it's a difficult question, but what is your assessment?

Mr. FORD: Well, my own personal opinion is if you're given the choice between a conspiracy theory to explain something like this and a theory of simple human error and mistake, I generally think it turns out to be human error or mistake. I don't think it was a conspiracy. I do think that the police who were seriously absent during three or four hours when the riot broke out on Friday, March the 14th, were simply uncertain how to proceed. And I think that the sort of level of violence they were going to be allowed to use, the sort of rules of engagement that they were to be given, had to come from so far above, and so many meetings, and so many telephone calls, and one thing or another, that by the time it happened, it was too late.

I find it astonishing though, at the same time, that the police were not issued with some sort of orders beforehand, because everybody knows, as Dr. Barnett was saying, that March the 10th is a sensitive moment. And the mood in Lhasa was pretty tense all that week. But I don't think it was a deliberate effort to show the Tibetans in their worst light by letting them riot, and burn, and kill, and Han Chinese civilians.

Later of course, the amount of force that the police and the military police, militarized police, has varied from spot to spot, depending on which of the 30 or 40 places around Tibet and the Tibetan areas of Gantzu and Tsinghua Provinces we're talking about.

MARTIN: OK, I'm sorry we need to pause just briefly just to say that if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Peter Ford, reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, and Robert Barnett, lecturer in Tibetan studies at Columbia University, about the situation in Tibet.

Dr. Barnett, Peter mentioned that the monks yesterday talked about the Dalai Lama, he had nothing to do with this. What is your sense of his role in this situation?

Prof. BARNETT: Well, it's probably not like Western audience might imagine it. I think there's a tendency to think of any religious leader of this stature, who has such a wide following, must be something of an autocrat or a demagogue. But that's not really the situation. Buddhism doesn't really work like that. It enables people to have huge respect for their Lama, or in this case, also their head of state, without necessarily feeling they have to obey everything he says.

And so, he's not the driver of the vehicle that is Tibet or the Tibetan people. He's the chief source of advice, and he's been quite clear about this. He can try to persuade people not to use violence, and he has tried consistently over a number of years, but he can't completely stop them. It's really up to them, and Buddhism is quite strong, really, in allowing people to make that choice if they feel they have to.

So he's taking, you know, bigger and bigger steps to try to persuade people not to get involved in violence, but at the same time saying that he can't force them to do anything, and this is showing up now. But what is really happening behind that sort of question is a much bigger political question, which I think Peter has alluded to, which is that all these protests together, far beyond what anyone could have anticipated, especially these rural incidents far across the Tibetan Plateau, are a mandate for the Dalai Lama.

They're a mandate tainted with the blood of victims, tragically, as so often in history, but they unequivocally say that he has been right all along, it seems, in saying that Tibetans are deeply unhappy, and furthermore in saying that Tibetans seem to have a very live memory of when Tibet was independent, as they see it. So these are very strong political messages coming out of these events.

MARTIN: And these messages come at a sensitive time for the Chinese, Peter, owing to the schedule of the Olympics there in Beijing later on this year. So how do you think that that is playing into what is unfolding there, Peter?

Mr. FORD: Well, I don't think there's any doubt that the Tibetans are very aware of the fact that the world's attention is focused on China because of the Olympics next August. Indeed, an exiled group of Tibetans in India launched a march on March the 10th, which was intending to reach the borders of Tibet on the 8th of August, which is of course the day that the Olympics begin.

The problem, of course, for the Chinese is that this multiplies their difficulties in knowing how to deal with it a hundred-fold, because they are, for one thing, planning to run the Olympic torch through Tibet and up to the top of Mount Everest sometime in late May or early June. Now, they clearly will not want to do that in secret. At the same time, given what happened today when journalists were allowed within a shouting distance of monks, I wonder whether the Chinese authorities are going to want to let the international press in to watch it. It poses enormous dilemmas for the Chinese authorities.

MARTIN: And also for the media, because if they do restrict the access of foreign journalists, then we have to consider whether we will take that information transmitted by state-controlled media, right? So...

Mr. FORD: This would not be the first time that the journalists have had to rely on state-controlled media. Of course, all one can do is just make it quite clear in one's reporting that this is where the information is coming from, and that it is very, very difficult, if not sometimes impossible, to have access to any sort of countervailing information. Certainly, that it's impossible at this moment to have access to any independent information because clearly what's coming from the government is self-serving and what is coming from the Tibetan exiles, who tell a very different stories of the number of deaths and how they occurred, is also self-serving.

So it makes, obviously, the media's job extremely hard, and all we can do is report what we hear and make it absolutely clear to our listeners and to our readers where we're hearing it from.

MARTIN: I understand.

Mr. FORD: And it's not independently verified.

MARTIN: All right, Peter, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you. Peter Ford is a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. He joined us from Beijing. We were also joined by Robert Barnett, Tibetan scholar at Columbia University. He joined us from our Bureau in New York. I thank you both.

Prof. BARNETT: Thank you.

Mr. FORD: You're welcome.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin. The Conversation continues on Tell Me More from NPR News.

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