Tight Curbs for Torch Relay

China has brought forward the progress of the Olympic torch through two of its most politically sensitive regions, imposing tight security on the relay route. Travel agents in Lhasa say thousands of people have booked into hotels in the city to cheer the event.

lhasa-chinese-millitary Chinese military trucks sit at the base of the Potala Palace in the Tibetan capital Lhasa on 21 March, 2008 after violent protests broke out following days of demonstrations against Chinese rule.
Photo: RFA

HONG KONG—Chinese authorities in Tibet and the northwestern region of Xinjiang, two of the most politically sensitive ethnic minority regions in the country, are tightly controlling who will be allowed to watch the Olympic flame pass on its way to start the Games in Beijing.

The torch relay was originally scheduled to start from Lhoka (in Chinese, Shannan) prefecture on Friday and then enter Lhasa, which saw violent rioting and protests against Chinese rule in mid-March, but the initial leg of the torch's progress through the Himalayan region was canceled in favor of a single day event Saturday in Lhasa, sources said.

"All who are to participate in the relay of the Olympic torch will be placed in a hotel," a Tibetan source in Lhasa said.

"Most of the Tibetans selected hold some kind of leadership position. The  authorities seem to be very worried about protests," he said, adding that restrictions on Tibetans in Lhasa were very intense.

"During the holy month of April, Lhasa and the surrounding area would normally be bustling with people visiting monasteries and other religious sites and making offerings. This time, they are all being forced to stay home," the Lhasa source said.

Armed police in Lhasa

Tibetans had been threatened with the loss of their jobs and even pensions if they performed the usual offerings during the torch relay, he added.

Travel agencies in Lhasa said thousands of armed police were patrolling the streets of Lhasa ahead of the rally, and that arrangements had been made for people from all work units and schools to travel to show their support.

Detailed routes haven't been publicized in advance but other residents of the Tibetan capital also reported tightened security in the city, where thousands of security forces were drafted to quell the unrest that spread to other Tibetan regions of western China in March.

“Authorities dare not tell people the detailed routes along which the torch relay will pass in advance,” one Lhasa resident said. “There will also be traffic control.”

Sources said major routes to the Potala Palace, the former home of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, would be blocked for the rally.

“When the torch arrives at the Potala Square in Lhasa, a curfew will be imposed,” one resident said. “All shops and stores will be closed, and major roads to the Potala Palace will also be blocked.”

Orchestrated crowd

“When the torch arrives in Lhasa, the authorities will organize it so people can watch from a designated location, but when the relay starts, not just anyone will be able to watch it,” the Lhasa resident said.

Sources in the tourist industry in Tibet said the activity was aimed at preventing a repeat of the Tibetan pro-independence protests seen in London, Paris, and San Francisco.

China’s Olympic torch relay has been disrupted by protests in major cities, largely over Chinese rule in Tibet, where a wave of anti-government riots and protests erupted in March, triggering an armed crackdown.

Patriotic demonstrators have since marched in several Chinese cities to demand a boycott of French goods and targeted French supermarket chain Carrefour, after Tibet protesters wrestled with Chinese athletes, including a woman in a wheelchair, for the Olympic torch in Paris.

Meanwhile, authorities elsewhere in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) were stepping up patriotic re-education campaigns in the wake of protests against Chinese rule in Tibet.

Fear of separatism

An official in the Sangri county government in Lhoka said all officials had been ordered to attend patriotic education classes several times a week until after the Olympic Games, hosted this year in Beijing, were over.

Earlier this week, the torch journeyed through Xinjiang, home to millions of Turkic-speaking, Muslim Uyghurs, one week ahead of the published schedule.

Large-scale traffic restrictions were also in place during the torch rally there. Beijing has said it fears Muslim separatists may be planning “terrorist activities” around the Olympics, vowing to tighten security in the region, where anti-Beijing sentiment is rife.

“Fifteen major roads in Urumqi have been blocked for three days, from 7 a.m. until 11 p.m.,” one Urumqi resident said.

“Public buses have to make a detour. Shops and stores along the route of the torch relay have to be closed,” he added.

A spokesman for the German-based World Uyghur Congress, an exiled group of Uyghurs who favor independence from Chinese rule, said only those who had passed a political background check would be allowed into the streets to watch the torch pass by.

Approved cheering

Onlookers would be require to cheer the torch's progress by shouting “Go China!,” the spokesman said.

Both Tibetans and Uyghurs have chafed under Beijing’s rule for the last six decades, and Chinese authorities have faced persistent accusations of repression and abuse.

Chinese authorities recently closed a Web site aimed at promoting understanding between Han Chinese and ethnic Uyghurs following allegations that the site was linked to foreign “extremists.”

China has waged a campaign over the last decade against what it says are violent separatists and Islamic extremists who aim to establish an independent state in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which shares a border with Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Mongolia.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, Beijing took the position that Uyghur groups were connected with al-Qaeda and that one group, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), was a “major component of the terrorist network headed by Osama bin Laden.” The ETIM has denied that charge.

Original reporting in Mandarin by Qiao Long, and by RFA's Tibetan and Cantonese services. Tibetan service director: Jigme Ngapo. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Cantonese service director: Shiny Li. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie, Jia Yuan and Karma Dorjee. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han and Richard Finney.


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