Saturday, July 19, 2008

Journalist and blogger unravel Tibet riot mystery

Just how severe was the security crackdown in Lhasa? What is to account for the apparent delay in the crackdown? James Miles, the only accredited Western reporter in Lhasa when the riots broke out, has been asking these questions. He writes in the Economist:*

The security forces’ response was highly unusual compared with their usual tactics for dealing with protests in Tibet and elsewhere in China. In 1993 the authorities quelled a riot in central Lhasa using tear-gas and plastic bullets. This time they kept well away from the rioting. Even if troops did shoot at people, it was not part of a concerted effort to stop the unrest.

. . . in fact the eruption of citywide rioting was slower than this suggested. . . Foreign tourists say three lorryloads of paramilitary troops arrived at around 1.15pm. . . . But the troops scattered within a few minutes after being bombarded with stones. Some of them abandoned their shields. Photographs show that several of the security personnel, although carrying shields and wearing helmets, were in civilian clothes. They did not look ready to defend themselves against rioters, let alone to try to stop them.

Kadfly, a the only citizen-journalist blogging from Lhasa on March 14, obtained these photos and posted them on his blog. The Economist article continues:

Why didn't they riot?

There are a number of possible explanations for this half-hearted response to such a big incident. It may have been simple bungling by a security apparatus . . . Or perhaps official decision-making was paralysed by differences over what to do, and hindered by the absence of Mr Zhang, the party chief, who was in Beijing at the time.

The slow and cackhanded reaction is puzzling nonetheless. China, after all, faces tens of thousands of protests and riots every year, most swiftly contained. . . .

The security forces and political apparatus had long been nervous in Tibet especially. . . anti-Chinese protests from 1987 to 1989 culminated in the imposition of martial law . . . Since then, officials . . have never let down their guard. . . .

Even if officials had ignored such warnings, the protests at Lhasa’s monasteries on March 10th and 11th were the biggest in the city since 1989 and provided ample warning of bigger trouble ahead. . . . On March 13th, the eve of the riots, security in central Lhasa was visibly tighter . . .

Yet by 1.30pm on March 14th, as the riots began to spread beyond the area near the Ramoche Temple, the security presence had all but disappeared from that part of the city. Once the riots began to spread, officials may have worried that any effort to control them would lead to bloodshed that would damage China’s image in the build-up to the games. But it is also possible that some officials actually wanted the violence to escalate, as a pretext to impose blanket security on the city long before the Olympics. They might have calculated that tensions in Lhasa were likely to present a growing security headache in the run-up to the games, and that foreign scrutiny would become more intense. By refraining from an immediate bloody crackdown they might even gain international kudos for avoiding a Tiananmen-style response. Chinese officials may have been genuinely surprised that, in the event, Western reaction was overwhelmingly negative.

This response was fuelled by a widespread perception outside China, encouraged by reports from Tibetans in exile, that large-scale bloodshed had indeed occurred. But it is still not known whether the security forces shot anyone at all during the unrest of March 14th and 15th in Lhasa. Figures used by Tibetans abroad have fudged the issue. The Dalai Lama himself says more than 200 people have been killed by Chinese security forces since March. But he and his aides have provided scant detail. There is little doubt that several were shot in other parts of the plateau, most notably in Sichuan, where several dozen may have been killed.

In the case of Lhasa the Tibetan government-in-exile has published a list of only 23 Tibetans killed on March 14th and 15th. But it is unable to provide a consistent account of these incidents. In an interview with The Economistt in May, the Dalai Lama admitted he was uncertain about how the unrest developed in Lhasa and the details of any shooting by the security forces there: “There is a lot of confusion and contradictory information.”

No photographs have come to light from Lhasa of violence by police or troops on March 14th or 15th, nor of any resulting casualties. . . . . Georg Blume of Die Zeit . . . arrived in Lhasa on March 15th . . . in nearly a week of interviews he was unable to confirm any reports of killings by the security forces.

The relay of the Olympic torch. . . . original plans for three days of ceremonies across Tibet would have been a security nightmare—and would have been even worse had there been no crackdown in March. . . . . Disgruntled Tibetans would have sensed an opportunity.

Reflecting upon events he observed five months ago and the Economist article, Kadfly concludes: "Beijing could have easily avoided this publicity nightmare by letting foreign journalists in to document what their security forces were actually doing, instead of keeping them out and forcing them to speculate about massacres and bloodshed."
*h/t Kadfly

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