Monday, March 17, 2008

Tibet braces for Chinese crackdown

In an announcement that has the sinister ring of Orwellian Newspeak, China claims it has shown “great restraint” in its attempt to crush the riots in the Tibetan capital Lhasa. But while the Chinese-appointed governor of Tibet asserted no guns were used against protesters in the capital, troops flooded into neighbouring areas to enforce control after violent protests. And Lhasa itself faces a midnight ultimatum for protesters to give themselves up or face tougher punishment.

Tibet’s governor Champa Phuntsok promised leniency to those who turned themselves in before the day’s end while threatening harsh consequences for those who don't. He also claimed that the total death toll was 16 so far, a figure greatly disputed by Tibetans exile groups who say over a hundred have died. The governor blamed supporters of the Dalai Lama for the protests. Meanwhile the Dalai Lama himself has condemned what he called "cultural genocide" in his homeland and called for an international investigation.

Tibet’s Prime Minister in exile Samdhong Rinpoche said that hundreds have died since violence broke out a week ago. He told reporters in the Indian hillside home of the government in exile, Dharamshala, that they had requested the international community and the UN send a delegation to Tibet to investigate the claims. China rejects these charges, saying today that 13 "innocent civilians" were killed by “Tibetan rioters” during violent protests in Lhasa, and that it did not use lethal force to quell the rioting.

With western media banned from Tibet, it has been difficult to verify competing claims. The only outside journalist still in Lhasa is The Times’ James Miles. He says that all is quiet at the moment after two days of deadly riots and arson attacks, with the people of Lhasa lying low ahead of the midnight deadline. Rubble and burnt-out vehicles littered the streets, with just an occasional gunshot. Miles said armed troops entered the city on Saturday to quell Tibetan rioters who targeted both Han Chinese and Hui Muslims.

Today, army units drove through the streets parading dozens of Tibetan prisoners in handcuffs with their heads bowed. Soldiers stood behind each prisoner, a hand on the back of their neck to ensure their heads were bowed. Other troops stepped up their hunt for the rioters in house-to-house searches, checking all identification papers. Anyone unable to show an identity card and a household registration permitting residence in Lhasa was arrested. Loudspeakers on the trucks broadcast calls to anyone who had taken part in the violent riots on Friday to turn themselves in.

China is especially sensitive to media reports of the riots as the Beijing Olympics looms on the horizon. Steven Spielberg was the first to use the Olympics card when he resigned as the Games “artistic adviser" in protest over China not using its links with Sudan to help bring an end to violence in Darfur. Now it faces the possibility that a major crackdown in Tibet could unleash calls for a boycott of the Olympics. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband hinted at this recently when he said diplomats should no longer fear that raising human rights with China meant that economic relations would be damaged.

Despite worldwide protests, so far all leades including the Dalai Lama, have stopped short of calling for a boycott of the Games. But International Olympic Committee (IOC) chief Jacques Rogge is worried. Yesterday he said he was “concerned” about the Chinese crackdown and hoped “there can be an appeasement as soon as possible.” There is little doubt that Rogge’s real concern is the possibility that Western nations might skip his showpiece event in Beijing in August. Saying that the IOC was "in favour of the respect of human rights", Rogge rejected the idea of a boycott saying it would only penalise athletes and would not solve anything. What Rogge know is that the Games offers Tibet its best chance to squeeze compromise from Beijing.

No comments: