Protests by monks in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa appear to be escalating Friday. According to news agency reports, protestors have set shops and vehicles on fire. "It's very chaotic outside," one Tibetan told Reuters by telephone. "People have been burning cars and motorbikes and buses. ... We're scared."
The radio station Radio Free Asia, which is funded by the US government, reported that Chinese police had fired on Tibetan protestors and that two people had been killed.
Matt Whitticase of the Free Tibet Campaign in London told Reuters, citing witnesses on the ground, that as many as 400 protesters had gathered at a market near the Jokhang temple. The protesters were confronted by around 1,000 police, he said.
The US Embassy in Beijing reported Friday that American tourists had heard shots in the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. The embassy also advised Americans not to travel to the city. According to China's official Xinhua News Agency, people had been hospitalized with injuries and vehicles and shops had been set on fire. The agency gave few details, however.
The recent clashes in Lhasa are the fiercest since 1989. At the time, Hu Jintao, the then party chief of Tibet, which is classified as an autonomous region of China, ordered the People's Armed Police to shoot demonstrators. Today, Hu is China's president and head of the Communist Party of China.
According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in the last few days "a few monks" had "caused disruption to create unrest." But the latest reports from Lhasa suggest that there were in fact several hundred monks on the streets -- and not only in Tibet but also in predominantly Tibetan-populated areas on the Chinese side of the border.
The protests were triggered by the 49th anniversary of a revolt against the Chinese army. In 1959, Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled from his summer palace disguised as a soldier and crossed the border into India. He has lived in exile in the Indian town of Dharamsala ever since.
On Friday, the Dalai Lama appealed to the Chinese leadership to stop using brute force against the Tibetan demonstrators. "These protests are a manifestation of the deep-rooted resentment of the Tibetan people under the present governance," he said in a statement. He also appealed to the rulers in Beijing to address Tibetan resentment through dialogue rather than violence.
Also on Friday, the US ambassador to China, Clark Randt, urged Beijing to use restraint when dealing with Tibetan protesters and called for dialogue with the Dalai Lama, according to State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "He took the opportunity, because of what was going on in Lhasa, to urge restraint on the part of the Chinese officials and Chinese security forces and not resort to use of force in dealing with the protesters," McCormack told reporters after Randt met Chinese officials.
The protests began on Monday with a small rally, where several monks were apparently arrested. Afterwards hundreds of monks took to the streets.
The monks are believed to be protesting about the so-called "patriotic education" which forms an obligatory part of their training. As part of that education, they have to publicly distance themselves from the Dalai Lama, who is still highly revered by Tibetans, despite China's propaganda efforts to the contrary.
Beijing has repeatedly tried to present the Dalai Lama as an "unrepentant traitor and separatist." Tibetans who own a photo of him risk punishment. Nevertheless, many lamas keep his picture in their monastic cells or carry one with them.
A few years ago, the Dalai Lama abandoned his demands for Tibet, which was occupied by Chinese troops in 1951, to be given its independence. Instead, he demanded greater cultural autonomy for his homeland -- and not only within the borders of today's autonomous region of Tibet, but also in traditionally Tibetan areas of neighboring provinces. This in turn was interpreted by the Communist Party as an attempt to undermine the unity and sovereignty of China.
The current tensions show that the Chinese government has not succeeded, despite great pressure on recalcitrant monks and strict controls in the monasteries, to permanently stabilize the political situation in recent years.
The events in Tibet put the Beijing government in a delicate situation. If the monks continue to march, especially if the protests result in bloodshed, the voices calling for a boycott of the Olympic Games in Beijing will grow louder.
Soon, the Olympic torch will be carried through Tibet and to the top of Mount Everest, reaching the peak on May 10. The eyes of the world will once again be on the home of the Dalai Lama. It is expected that the police and army will have stepped up the repression against the monasteries by then.
The Dalai Lama recently advocated using the Olympic Games as a non-violent means of drawing attention to the situation of the Tibetans. He is afraid that his homeland will become culturally more and more Chinese. Indeed, the leading representatives of the autonomous region, such as the party chief, are Han Chinese. The majority of businesses in Lhasa are also controlled by Han Chinese. The capital itself has long had the character of a Chinese garrison town.
The situation on the ground is unclear as foreign journalists can only enter Tibet with the permission of the local authorities. In China, TV news reports about Tibet from the BBC and CNN, which can only be received in international hotels and in some households, have been blocked by censors. Many Tibetans who were contacted by foreigners by telephone were afraid to report on the situation.