Thursday, October 17, 2013

TIBET - Lhasa lockdown

MORE than five years after violent mass protests rocked Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, the city remains in the grip of a severe security lockdown. The first week of October—the festive National Day holiday period when millions in China take the chance to travel to exotic spots like Tibet—offered no relief

The heavy security presence in Lhasa helped ensure that no major untoward incidents occurred. But in Biru, a county more than 300km to the north-east, the situation seemed less settled. Security forces reportedly fired tear gas, and possibly live ammunition, at a crowd of protestors October 6th, injuring at least 60 according to one report by the International Campaign for Tibet, a pressure group, and another by Radio Free Asia. The reports said protestors had gathered in support of a man detained for resisting official orders that Tibetans display Chinese flags at their homes. Local police officials denied such an incident had taken place, telling a Western news agency there was “no protest, no one injured”.

Few of the Chinese tourists in Lhasa were likely to have learned of those reports, but they could hardly help noticing the heavy security apparatus. It is pervasive, but some aspects are becoming more subtle. With the advent of an electronic surveillance grid-system, the police presence is often greater than what meets the eye.

Security elements are now embedded in tourist sites and residential neighbourhoods alike. Behind the booths selling tickets to the Potala Palace is a barracks housing around 30 members of China’s paramilitary armed police, and 20 firefighters. The firefighters are a particularly prudent—and poignant—element, given that about 120 Tibetans have self-immolated in protest since 2009. Adorned in the same crimson and white stucco colour scheme as the palatial compound, the barracks is designed to blend in.

Your correspondent saw three green flatbed trucks parked a stone's throw away from the palace entrance. If they were indeed army trucks, as they appeared to be, efforts had been made to conceal the fact: their number plates were taped over with newspaper—copies of the People’s Liberation Army Daily, it so happened. 

In the Barkhor, a radial network of narrow streets surrounding the Jokhang Temple, one of Tibet’s holiest sites, six police stations are manned round the clock. Two other stations monitor the Jokhang itself. Installed on the Barkhor and near the temple are security screening points of the sort found at airports. Plainclothes policemen, dressed in black jackets and sporting dark sunglasses (and some carrying strings of prayer beads as props), can be spotted circulating among the worshippers.

One top official priority during the National Day holiday was to nip any potential disturbance in the bud. Another seemed to be enforcement of the mandated show of Tibetans’ allegiance to China through the prominent display of the national flag. The pressure to do this seemed to fall most heavily on those running businesses on Lhasa’s main thoroughfares. 

After worrying during the holiday period that a failure to comply might have led to fines or detention, the shopkeepers are now awaiting word on when they may drop the flag. In Lhasa, that is not a move to be taken lightly. The Economist (Photo credit: Teh Eng Koon/AFP)

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