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Tibetan Capital on Lockdown After Significant Protests

ALISON STEWART, host:

There are new developments in the week-long clashes between Tibetan protestors and monks, and the Chinese authorities. The authorities have said they will be lenient on protestors who turn themselves in before midnight tonight, and harsh for those who don't. That's only about four and a half hours from right now. So remember, you can check back with npr.org for any updates as tonight's deadline passes.

The region's capital of Lhasa is under lockdown after violence spread through the area late last week, and throughout the weekend. Schools and banks were burned and looted, and numerous deaths and injuries were reported. Now, it all began a week ago in Tibet on March 10th. It was the anniversary of the 1959 uprising against Chinese rule in the region. Tibet had been effectively independent for decades before Chinese troops entered in 1950.

Now today marks another anniversary, the day the Dalai Lama had to flee to India as a result of those clashes. Gordon Fairclough of the Wall Street Journal is reporting on the Tibetan situation from Shanghai, China. Foreign journalists who were not in Lhasa at the time of the violence have not been allowed access to the area. Gordon, thanks for being with us.

Mr. GORDON FAIRCLOUGH (Reporter, Wall Street Journal): My pleasure.

STEWART: From what you've heard from people inside Lhasa, what's the situation like right now? Are people still on lockdown and afraid to leave their homes?

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: It's extraordinarily tense. We've seen some video footage of paramilitary police going door to door, searching for people, essentially anyone on the street in the areas downtown that were the focus of the violence of Friday, is being placed under arrest. So it's extremely tight control right now.

STEWART: I want to backup a little and find out why the violence escalated. On Friday, monks from a temple reportedly began to march in protest of the rough treatment of monks who had marched earlier in the week. Now, at some point, police and authorities became involved. Can you explain to me how the violence escalated?

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: It's a bit hard to reconstruct the entire chain of events. I think, you know, for the very immediate triggers it may be hard to really know. But I think there are some very broad trends that have been driving towards this.

STEWART: OK.

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: As you noted Monday, a week ago, was this big anniversary of the '59 uprising. There were some demonstrations in Lhasa, monks were arrested. This led to a follow-on protest after that by people upset at the arrests, and upset generally at limitations on their civil liberties, and on their right to practice their religion.

But we also have going on here is that the Beijing Olympics are coming up. And so Tibetan activists inside and outside Tibet see this as a good opportunity, a time when they will have maximum leverage over the Chinese government, if they can bring attention to their cause and the risk of embarrassing China ahead of the Olympics, they might be able to get some concessions out of China.

I think what we've seen is just things got really out of control on the streets in Lhasa on Friday, and really turned into rioting. And for many hours the police essentially had to pull out, or did pull out, and things kind of went crazy. And then they came back in, and with the disorder used that as an excuse to start using force.

STEWART: Let's talk about force. The Tibetan government says the number of deaths is as high as 80. The Chinese government says the number is closer to 13. What numbers do you know? And have you heard from the people that you have been speaking to who have been reporting on this story?

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: You know, it's very hard to tell, of course. We've talked to hospitals and hospital emergency rooms. Our best guess is that the number is somewhere in between the two. The official Chinese death toll has now climbed up to 16. And part of it, you know, I think is skewed by who's counting what type of people.

A lot of what the Chinese include in their toll we suspect are ethnic Han Chinese people who were killed by Tibetans in the rioting. There also was a kind of pitched battle between Tibetans and a Muslim minority in China, the Uighurs, and a mosque was set on fire in Lhasa. There's been a lot of communal and interethnic violence that erupted out of all of this on Friday.

STEWART: Gordon, this just sounds extraordinarily violent. I'm trying to remember the last time I've ever heard of a Tibetan protest becoming this violent.

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: It's quite shocking, you know, to someone outside. And as you noted as well, access by journalists to Tibet is extremely limited even in ordinary times. It's very hard for journalists to get permission to go. So, it's very hard to know, you know, at what point temperatures really started boiling over this way. But we've had the extension of a rail line now from Eastern China into Tibet. The province is being overrun with ethnic Han Chinese tourists. A lot of Han Chinese are moving in, migrating out there, setting up businesses.

I think there's a lot of sense among Tibetans, and certainly Tibetans we've talked to, that they're being essentially locked out of the benefits of economic development. There's been an awful lot of inflation in China, which is hitting especially hard in Tibet, where people are far, far poorer than the national average in China. So there's been a lot of economic discontent going on, layered on top of, you know, many years and years of feeling that their religious rights and civil rights have been curtailed.

STEWART: We're speaking with Gordon Fairclough. He's a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, speaking to us from Shanghai, China. We're talking about the clashes in Tibet. Now the Chinese authorities, they blame the Dalai Lama for inciting the violence. He denies this. But he also said he won't ask the Tibetan people to stop protesting. So what is his role here?

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: Well everyone, you know - it's a bit difficult. I think it's hard to believe that the Dalai Lama thought that this kind of rioting was going to occur in Lhasa. But, as I said, you know, with the Olympics coming up, I think both inside and outside of Tibet, activist groups, the Dalai Lama's government-in-exile, Tibetans in Tibet, have all looked at this as an opportunity...

STEWART: Sure.

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: To try to draw attention to their problems, and their treatment at the hands of the Chinese government. And, you know, the last Monday's observances were part of a planned series of events leading up to the Olympics, involving the Olympic torch relay, and a sort of parallel torch relay being done by Tibetan athletes.

And so there were a lot of protests and awareness-raising activities already in train, and kind of planned out. And now, actually, on the ground in Tibet, this has kind of spiraled out of control, and is spreading now beyond Tibet into other parts of China, where there are a lot of Tibetan residents.

STEWART: And security forces mobilizing there. Gordon Fairclough, reporter for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks, Gordon.

Mr. FAIRCLOUGH: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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