Security forces in predominantly Tibetan areas of the neighboring province of Sichuan are on heightened alert after days of unrest last week that left six Tibetans dead and scores wounded, according to exile groups. Beijing has acknowledged two deaths, blaming the violence on “mobs” attacking police stations.
The deputy Communist Party secretary in Tibet, Wu Yingjie, visiting the town of Nagqu, 150 miles north of the capital Lhasa, warned police to “be on the alert” since “the fight against separatism is very tough,” according to Tuesday’s edition of the Tibet Daily.
The Communist Party chief in Lhasa, Qi Zhala, meanwhile, inspected two Buddhist monasteries and urged clerics and officials to “strive to achieve the goal of no big incidents, no medium incidents, and no small incidents,” the paper reported.
Journalists have been turned back from areas of reported unrest by the police, who have kept the region under lockdown, and have been unable to confirm events.
Simmering ethnic tensions are traditionally higher at this time of year, as Tibetans prepare both to mark their new year, which this year falls on Feb. 22, and to commemorate previous March uprisings, especially the one in 1959 that led to the Dalai Lama‘s flight into exile.
Last week’s violence was the worst since Tibetan unrest in March 2008 left 22 people dead.
The head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, Lobsang Sangay, called on Tibetans not to celebrate new year, but instead to “pay tribute to and pray for those brave men and women who sacrificed their lives for the just cause of Tibet.”
Sixteen Tibetans in Sichuan have set themselves on fire since March to protest Beijing’s restrictions on Tibetan culture and religious practice. Eleven of them have died.
US Special Coordinator for Tibetan Issues Maria Otero, said last week that Washington had “consistently” raised the issue of the self immolations with Beijing and has “repeatedly urged the Chinese government to address the counterproductive policies in Tibetan areas that have created tensions and that threaten the distinct religious, cultural, and linguistic identity of the Tibetan people.”
The Chinese government has reacted fiercely to the immolations, seeking to blacken the names of some of the monks who resorted to such tactics by accusing them of thievery and womanizing. Tibetans found guilty of helping others to set fire to themselves have been sentenced to heavy jail terms.
That harsh response “has led people across a threshold,” says Robbie Barnett, a Tibetan affairs expert at Columbia University in New York. “Those who set fire to themselves are respected as representing society and protesting without causing violence to others.”
Tibetans are also frustrated by the lack of government response to their complaints about official controls on their culture and religion, such as forced political education classes for monks at which they are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama, says Dr. Barnett.
“People expect the [Communist] Party to listen” when grievances spill over as they did in 2008, Barnett adds, “but this is not happening. The government’s credibility is dropping rapidly.”