BEIJING, March 14 (Reuters) - Protesters in Tibet's capital
Lhasa burnt shops and vehicles and yelled for independence on
Friday as the region was hit by its biggest protests for nearly
two decades, testing China's grip months before the Olympics.
Peaceful street marches by Tibetan Buddhist monks over
previous days gave way to bigger scenes of violence and
resentment in the remote, mountainous region.
"Now it's very chaotic outside," an ethnic Tibetan resident
said by telephone. "People have been burning cars and motorbikes
and buses. There is smoke everywhere and they have been throwing
rocks and breaking windows. We're scared."
Another ethnic Tibetan resident said there were "protests
everywhere". "It's no longer just the monks. Now they have been
joined by lots of residents," the man said.
The eruption of anger comes despite China's repeated claims
that the Tibetan people are grateful for improved lives and it
threatens to stain preparations for the Beijing Olympics with
fears of ethnic unrest.
Chinese rule in remote, Buddhist Tibet has become a focus for
critics in the run-up to the August Games, with global marches
this week to mark the 49th anniversary of a failed uprising
against Communist rule spilling into Tibet itself.
Those marches apparently emboldened Buddhist monks to march
down Lhasa's streets, defying a heavy police presence and reports
of lockdowns on several monasteries, sources with knowledge of
the region said.
On Friday, 300 to 400 residents and monks demonstrated in
Lhasa, a source cited a witness as saying, capping a week of
daily protests led by the Buddhist clergy that has echoes of
anti-government protests that rocked neighbour Myanmar last year.
"Some are angry and some are scared. The security forces are
checking houses to see if any monks are hiding," said the source,
who is in touch with Tibetan residents.
More than 10 monks had been arrested and tanks were
patrolling the square near the Potala Palace, the source said,
referring to one of the architectural wonders of the world once
the winter residence of Tibet's spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.
Witnesses said a number of shops were set on fire and report
from China's Xinhua news agency said the Tromsikhang Market in
central Lhasa was also in flames.
Residents spoke of general chaos around the city, and one
Tibetan man said Tibetans and minority Hui Muslim traders from
other parts of China were fighting each other with rocks and
A Han Chinese resident said the protests were being directed
at the city's Chinese population. "The Han Chinese are really
scared," the resident said. "We have been told not to go
"It is very chaotic... There is lots of smoke and police
around," said another Han Chinese man. An editor at the
Chinese-language Lhasa Evening News said staff were staying
The U.S. Embassy said it had received reports from U.S.
citizens of gunfire in Lhasa and advised its citizens there to
Two residents reached by telephone referred to martial law.
But that could not be confirmed and China's State Council
Information Office declined to comment, referring only to remarks
made on Thursday by a Foreign Ministry spokesman, who said the
protesters were "seeking to spark social turmoil".
The demonstrations in Lhasa earlier also spilled into at
least one other ethnic Tibetan area of China.
Hundreds of monks from the Labrang monastery in the
northwestern province of Gansu led a march through the town of
Xiahe, the Free Tibet Campaign said, citing sources in
Dharamsala, home to Tibet's government-in-exile.
The region has been periodically restive since Chinese troops
invaded in 1950. Nine years later, the Dalai Lama staged a failed
uprising against Chinese rule and fled into exile in India.
China imposed martial law in Tibet in 1989, the same year as
the Tiananmen Square protests were crushed in Beijing, to quell
anti-Chinese demonstrations, when President Hu Jintao was the
Communist Party boss in the region.
This week's wave of protests began on Monday, when 500 monks
from the Drepung monastery marched in Lhasa. That was followed by
action from monks at the Lhasa-area Sera and Ganden monasteries.
Security personnel fired tear gas on at least one of the
demonstrations, reports said.
The Washington-based International Campaign for Tibet said
authorities had sealed off all three monasteries.
The U.S.-government-funded Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported
monks from Sera were on a hunger strike, demanding withdrawal of
Chinese paramilitary forces from the monastery and the release of
monks detained earlier this week.
Two monks from Drepung were in critical condition after
attempting suicide by slitting their wrists, RFA said.