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Blog post: Riots in Lhasa, last day of visit

Written by Aurélien, a French traveler present in Lhasa on March 14th.
March 15, 2008
Original blog post in French translated by "Tanguy"

 chinese flagThe last day of visit in Lhasa, Tibet’s capital city, in the morning we went visiting the Jokhang temple, located in the middle of the city, on the Barkhor place. Very religious atmosphere, lots of pilgrims are here to pray in front of a very important statue. From all the monasteries visited, it is the one I preferred. Once the visit over, I go eating by my own. In the streets, shops are closing one after the others. Hmm, weird. Anyway, I reach the street where is my favorite small restaurant: cool, it’s still open.

The fact that the other shops in the street already lowered the iron curtain does not worry me. I already saw a similar thing in Mumbai, a protest against a priest murder in a temple. I tell myself that here too, it must be kind of a strike.

It takes me the time to eat and walk a little in the street to see what is happening, then I find myself right in the middle of action. In the street, there are several groups. Everyone stays like that, looking the street with no traffic, peacefully. Sometimes, everybody starts to shout and bark, and run to go hide in the streets linked with the main road. When everybody runs, it is in order to avoid being hit accidentally with a stone thrown by those across the street.

When those across the street throw stones (or more precisely paving stones), it is in direction of a Han Chinese who lhasa riotstries his best to run in the street to escape. It also sometimes happens a carefree comes alone with a scooter or a motorbike, in the middle of the street. Each time, it did not require more than 10 seconds so that he was lynched. Cars face the same treatment.

I so witnessed in one hour like ten lynchings and fights, sometimes a group of 20 Tibetans following and beating down a Chinese. Scooters are taken, put in the middle of the street and burned. Quickly, the number of such fires increases. The number of people in the streets as well. The tension goes up to another level and comes the moment to attack some Chinese shops : few minutes are enough to smash their iron curtain and burn their content down on the streets. Civil war atmosphere.

I prudently go back to the hotel, taking small parallel streets. Sometimes, I have to go on my way on that main street, until reaching a limit point where I cannot go further : the end of the street less than 150 meters ahead, is blocked.

As a tourist, I did not feel in danger at all. All those people down in the streets are Tibetans. They are clearly angry against Chinese, but foreigners don’t have anything to be afraid of, besides lost stones and projectiles. What worries me more is Chinese reaction. The army is getting closer and is progressively encircling the neighborhood. One can hear tanks moving, water and electricity are cut in all the neighborhood (all night long).

As a tourist, I did not feel in danger at all. All those people down in the streets are Tibetans. They are clearly angry against Chinese, but foreigners don’t have anything to be afraid of, besides lost stones and projectiles. What worries me more is Chinese reaction. The army is getting closer and is progressively encircling the neighborhood. One can hear tanks moving, water and electricity are cut in all the neighborhood (all night long).

Approximately at the same time, 200 meters from here, the 23 other tourists with whom I came to Tibet are together in the hotel. This hotel ends up to be in first line: paving stones are thrown on the roof and against the front of the building, hurting a tourist in the face. The building facing our hotel starts to burn, it is the panic. Moreover because everybody is wondering where the French guy is. They speak about evacuation, some want to leave immediately, some others want to wait before I am back, they are even wondering if I am dead. But everything was ok for me, I was quietly eating Tsampa and drinking tea with 5 Tibetan girls. In the middle of the mess, one of them started to explain me, crying, why all this was happening. It is because of the monks. It is not in our culture to be violent, but here we don’t have any choice, it is because of the monks. Tension increasing, we go hide in one of their home, in order to go on this conversation. I will spend around 2 hours in their company.

lhasa riotThey explain that Tibetan people lost all their temples, and when losing their temples, they are losing their history. "Our culture is transmitted orally, and the only ones to archive and keep writings on what makes Tibetan people are the monks, in the monasteries. Destroying temples and assassinating/jailing monks, Chinese are destroying us. They destroyed more than 1000 monasteries, and all their content has previously been looted and is now outside Tibet, in China."

They are teaching us how to become rich, to them business is the most important. But for us, the most important is religion. It is not in our mentality to be rich, because it means that we take too much money to the others, and in our culture, the others are more important than yourself. Albeit Tibetans are happy to have better clothes, but the truly important thing is religion. We don’t want to be rich, we want to be free."

Since Tibetan new year (in February), 500 monks would have been jailed, so a population uprising was predictable. I am asking them if they want and still hope to be free, if that will has not been lowered with the time. "Today we still want a free Tibet, we are very motivated, maybe more than before. When Dalai-Lama was distinguished in the USA last year, Chinese government did not allow us to wear traditional Tibetan clothes, we had to be dressed like Chinese. We could not even wear what we wanted."

My first feeling when arriving in Lhasa was surprise: it is a very modern and developed city. Everything seems new, newly built. And it is the case: the city has completely changed since 10 years. There is an atmosphere of a high tech city sprung up from nowhere. "Chinese people are building nice roads, they are praising themselves in their propaganda they spend a lot of money for Tibetan people. But they don’t say they also take everything we own. Every year, thousands of tourists pay a lot for entering our monasteries, and all this money go to Chinese."

In Lhasa, most of the shops are owned by Chinese, who thus control the labor market. In particular, an important criterion to find a job is speaking Chinese. "If we learn Chinese language, we can find a good job and have a good salary. But they don’t like us to speak English. It is a problem for those coming back from India where they learned English: it is hard for them to have a job. Then, many Tibetans had to learn Chinese. But we can only speak, not read it."

Since 2007, an important railway project linking Lhasa and Beijing was completed. It is the highest train in the world, and some westerners qualified as impossible. This train, pride of the party, is highly contested. It permits in particular to ease the looting of Tibetan soil. But Tibetans are more worried about the thousands new Chinese people settling here since this train exists.

lhasa riot"Now, in Lhasa, the majority of people are Chinese. Everywhere, there are only Chinese. And with birth control, we can only have one or two children maximum, or you have to pay the government. They (Chinese from other provinces) come every year by tens of thousands. We have the feeling to be buried."

Everything they build, it is in Chinese fashion. On TV, ads boost us to build new houses, telling us that in return we will have money. But those are lies, we get less money than what is told, and they say after, that the Chinese are financing and building our houses, and then that we have to be grateful and respectful to them. We are very angry against that too.

I ask them if they have any Chinese friends: none of the girls have any. Tibetans and Chinese don’t mix up. We recognize Chinese with their face and the way they are dressed.

Yesterday, in the streets, Chinese thus identified had some hard time. There were death, but it is hard to say how many. Riots would have cause more than 100 deaths according to some sources. Every year, there would have been protests, but nothing like this since 20 years. One have to say that it is very risky to protest in Tibet. The simple fact to own a picture of the Dalai Lama can send you to prison or forced labor for an unthinkable time. And when Chinese release you, they made so that you could not be harmful anymore.

lhasa protestsIn a street restaurant, there is Tibetan, if you see him, you will think he is dumb. But before, when he was young, he was really smart, very cultivated and gifted for painting. One day ha was caught by the police because he was painting a Tibetan flag. He was in jail for 13 years. He underwent a brainwashing, and tortured with electricity. He left totally dumb, does not remember anything.

Tibetans are wary of Chinese, they fear to be denounced. Government calls to denouncement, and we find more and more cameras. In temples in particular, we had the occasion to see many of those. It is the way the control what is going on in the monasteries and these places became dangerous for Tibetans, in particular for the monks living there.

Before leaving, I am asking them what they think from the fact that us, tourists, have to pay a lot Chinese government tolhasa pavemnet enter Tibet from Nepal. Indeed, we have to buy a pack with a specialized agency, and this cost more than $400. Consequently, Tibet’s visit from Nepal is subject to controversy. It does not make a problem for us, we are happy to see tourists.

We go back again in the streets. Away, we can see anti-riot Chinese cops make a cord to protect firemen, thanks to teargas. We wait a little more so that the situation calms down. I will have the opportunity to speak with another Tibetan man speaking good English. We must obey, obey, obey. We are fed up. If only I had weapons, we could do more, but we have nothing, only our hands. Olympic Games are getting closer, we want them to be cancelled. We want to put the Chinese out.

So, Tibetans’ will to be free is still as strong, maybe more since the speeding up of Chinese colonization last year. In a same country, same city, there are clearly two categories of people living one beside another, but not mixing up. Mistrust and contained anger are dominating social relationships. Chinese government is talking about innocent Chinese deaths. And it is true : lynched Chinese and those whose shops were ransacked were maybe remarkable people. But witnessing this popular outburst, I understood that in this kind of situation there is no good and evil. It was Tibetans against Chinese. Those Chinese as victims of Tibetans are also victims of their own government policy. Tibetans hope that Chinese will now be afraid of settling in Tibet.

Once the calm back, I crossed the street, having first put my camera’s memory card in my pocket. My major fear during this time was that my pictures would help to identify people demonstrating. When arriving in my hotel, I am surprised to see the entrance was damaged, I did not think the riots had been here too. I go upstairs to my room, and see my things have been packed in my bag. The other man’s bag sharing my room is not here anymore. I tell myself they must have been evacuated.

So, I am happy to find them in the big living room, where I get to, hands in my pockets. Big general relief, there was panic here. Some had the fear of their life. It’s hard for me to share their worries. I feel deeply happy that I had the opportunity to live all that. Since I was very disappointed and frustrated not having the possibility to share local population’s life. I only thought about paying my $400-pack and then travel wherever I wanted, but no, we cannot go anywhere besides in a Jeep with a driver.

chinese armyI had the feeling that I had done a photo safari, crossing more than 1100 km in a country without being able to feel a little what is going on here (language barrier is also a reason). So being able to live this and discuss a little about the core of the problem, I was really happy and felt myself extremely lucky.

Today, we had to wait the police escort all the morning long, so I missed my train. But we could move this afternoon and take another ticket. Tomorrow morning, half of us are leaving Lhasa through a 36-hours train journey. I am in a hurry this evening to write that post. I really cannot reread myself or check some links given. In particular the Wikipedia-ones, because this website (and many others) are censored in China. And also, if I can write on my blog, it is impossible to see the result online. So, sorry if it is a little messy.

Original text and pictures: Aurélien, Saturday, March 15, 2008